Skip to main content

Full text of "The glad irony of the Gospel : sermons preached at Wake Forest Baptist Church"

See other formats

TT TT""* /^>/*%0 i ( H i ''T 









CLASS OF 1889 






Digitized by the Internet Archive 
in 2012 with funding from 
i and Library Services, under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the State Library of North Carolina, a division of Cultural Resources.; 



Sermons Preached 


Wake Forest Baptist Church 

Warren Carr 



Preface v 

1. Why Join the Church? 1 

2. Tribulation and Good Cheer 9 

3. Self-Denial and Christian Service 15 

4. The End of Parochialism and the Church-Related College 21 

5. He Died. So What? 31 

6. On Not Loving Everyone All the Time 37 

7. The Word From Above and the Word From the Side 43 

8. Job Backs Down 49 

9. To Act Is to Compromise 55 

10. Evangelism at the Exits 63 

11. A Theology for Ethics 69 

12. Christ Undeviating 75 

13. Easter's Glad Irony 81 

14. The Third Day and The Last Day 87 

15. The Theological Basis for Inclusiveness 93 

16. Christians and War 101 

17. On Prayer, The Jews, and Bailey Smith 107 

18. Gratitude Is a Decision 113 

19. Mother? 119 

20. A Decalogue of Manifestoes 125 

21. Words From An Angry Bible Believer 131 

22. Who Slammed the Door to Noah's Ark? 137 

23. Love and Taking Orders 143 

24. Tragic Outcomes From Broken Promises 149 

25. Advent and Confession 157 

26. God Bless America — Please 163 

27. The Lord's Supper 169 
tv. 28. The Good News of Judgment 175 
^ 29. Join the Church 181 

30. Things I Can't Preach and You Can't Hear 187 

31. The Community of the Cross 195 

32. On Doing the Morally Possible 201 

33. The Symbolic People of God 207 

34. Guilt and Forgiveness 213 

35. On Explaining Ourselves to God 219 

36. Character 227 

37. Experiences of Joy 235 

38. Loyalty 241 

39. The Sins of Missing Church 247 

40. A Gospel of Grace and Judgment 253 


Warren Carr is, heart and soul, a preacher of the Gospel. This 
selection of his sermons is intended to reveal how consistently the 
Good News has been both the joy and the burden of his preaching. 
The Retirement Committee of the Wake Forest Baptist Church com- 
missioned this book to help celebrate Warren's twenty-one year 
ministry here. It is meant as a tribute to Warren for his unapologetic 
proclamation of the Gospel. This collection of his preaching is also 
presented as a gift to his parishioners in the Wake Forest Church, to 
his many friends in other places, and to the larger public that has 
not yet heard his glad message. 

Many generous people have helped bring this project to fruition. 
Following a suggestion from Don Reeves, the editors sought the 
assistance of Ernestine Godfrey at Hunter Textbooks. She gave 
freely of her time to help make the myriad choices concerning 
publishers, print types, paper selection, and the like. As copy edi- 
tor, Ed Friendenberg has been especially valuable in providing his 
expert advice on all of these matters. His daughter Adela entered 
the entire text onto computer disks, and Ed himself gave it final 
editorial revision. Becky Nail brought to the task of copy editing 
her superb skills as a professor of English. Reggie Kiser, our printer 
representative from the Delmar Company, was patient and cooper- 
ative in guiding the book to its final form. 

It is a testament to the solidity of Warren Carr's 45-year career in 
Baptist ministry that he has pastored only five churches. The minis- 
ters and secretaries of the four other churches have kindly provided 
the pictures and memorabilia that appear on the insert pages. Anne 
Kesler Shields, who has given the church her splendid portrait of 
our minister, also provided the photograph of Warren and his be- 
loved companion in ministry, Martha Carr. 

During his twenty-one years as pastor of the Wake Forest Baptist 
Church, Warren Carr has preached nearly a thousand sermons. In 

making this small selection from so rich a treasure, we have sought 
to reveal the recurrent themes of his proclamation. It is our convic- 
tion that his repeated Biblical emphases are also the vital core of 
Christian faith. The utter primacy of God's grace — and thus its 
necessary tension with worldly justice and human merit — is the 
reiterated message of his preaching. 

From this central premise follow the theological corollaries that 
keep recurring throughout these sermons. The church as the Body 
of Christ mediates the grace of God through its ministry and wor- 
ship; divine revelation is not rooted in humanistic love or innate 
reason. The Bible, and especially the New Testament, is the source 
of the Gospel; it is to be gratefully heard and prayerfully obeyed at 
every point in the believer's life. The mercy of God, given by his 
goodness alone, establishes true community for men and women 
of all races and creeds. The Gospel is never to be identified with any 
political or moral cause, not with any party or nation — no matter 
how noble and right. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Chris- 
tians live in the world with hope and joy because they believe in 
the coming of the Kingdom. 

It should be remembered that Warren Carr is pre-eminently a 
preacher rather than a writer: a man whose voice and not his pen is 
the chief means of his message. Those who have seen and heard 
him in the pulpit know that he does not preach from a manuscript. 
More remarkable yet is his ability to dispense with even an outline. 
This is less the sign of a photographic memory, we believe, than the 
mark of a man radically freed by God to proclaim his Word. What 
we have here are not transcripts of Warren's preached sermons, 
therefore, but a record of his preparation for preaching. Yet because 
they were written for the ear rather than the eye, these sermon 
drafts convey the power of his proclamation. They will serve, we 
hope, as a grateful remembrance of Warren Carr's ministry in our 
midst. Better still, they will enable readers to hear, once more 
afresh, the glad irony of the Gospel. 

Marcus Hester, editor 

John Sykes, Richard Vance, Ralph Wood, associate editors 

Why Join the Church? 

September 1, 1983 
Isaiah 6; Ephesians 3:1-13 

I had a horrible dream the other night. It was so far removed 
from reality as to border on the psychotic. I dreamed that 150 people 
joined this church on this very Sunday. We even ran out of pencils. 
Had it not been for the fact that I had taken some medicine to repel 
a squadron of allergies trying to overcome my nasal ramparts, I 
would have been all the more frightened. And yet I am not sure 
why for in my waking hours, every Lord's Day at the close of the 
sermon, I come to the floor level and offer what we call the invita- 
tion to become a Christian, to seek baptism into Christ, to renew 
relationship with the church. I do that faithfully with no idea that 
anybody will respond on any given Sunday; I do that faithfully 
when there is no reason for me to believe that anybody is going to 
join the church. I do that regularly because it is a part of the faith 
and of the worship. And I continue to do it at a time and place in 
history when the question, Why join the church? is largely rhetori- 
cal, made rhetorical mostly by those people who have the answer: 
"There is no good reason in our society, given our world, for joining 
the church." 

If one is to approach that question, it is necessary to realize that 
the question these days inevitably must be raised and answered in 
the context of civil religion. It is a society with its own civil religion, 
the religion of the civilization, the religion that permeates and 
spreads throughout the warp and woof of the culture — it is that 
kind of civil religion which suggests that there is no longer any 
reason for joining the church. It used to be that the church had to 
defend its character. People kept saying, "The church is full of 
hypocrites." Now one of the blessings of civil religion is that since 

The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

people outside the church also claim to be religious, we find that 
the church is not alone in being characterized by hypocrites. 

So the church is reduced to a new kind of defense. It needs no 
longer defend its character as much as it needs to defend its necessi- 
ty. For you see, we live in a time when so many people say, "I do not 
need the church; I do not need the prompting of the pulpit nor the 
words of scripture nor the dogmas of the church, to convince me 
that I should take my stand against all kinds of social evils/' Any- 
thing from child pornography to the waste of nature is now being 
engaged by people who want this to be a decent world in which to 
live. Such people say, and I think rightly so, that they do not need 
the church to brace them up in the battle against war and discrimi- 
nation and political corruption and ineptitude. There is nothing at 
present which the church can say which will prompt them or 
motivate them or encourage them in that kind of endeavor; they 
are able to do it by themselves. I think that is beyond argument. I 
think society with its civil religion has both the heart and the hope 
necessary to combat most of the social evils of our time. I think the 
church therefore wastes energy and time in arguing about its own 
necessity to the world in this respect. However, that does demand 
that I say two things about the church and Christian social action. It 
was a point well taken when a member of this congregation said to 
me only last week, "I think too often you are saying the right thing. 
I agree with your doctrinal position, but you're saying the right 
thing to the wrong congregation at the wrong time." What he 
meant was that in my caution against our substituting social activ- 
ism for genuine faith, I have become blind to the fact that this 
congregation may be all too comfortable about the social ills of our 
time and is not assaulting those ills with the vigor that it should. 
That's a point well taken. The fact that the world about us does not 
need us to tell it what to do with regard to social unrighteousness 
never forgives the church or excuses the church for its failure to do 
its own job in that kind of context. That would be like saying "Well, 
the priest and the Levite do not have to pick the victim out of the 
ditch because the Samaritan is going to do it." Not at all. We, the 
church, must always be working as hard and as imaginatively and 
as unceasingly at social injustice as anybody else in the society. 

And I should also say in this context of civil religion that, unless I 
miss my guess, the time will come probably, perhaps I should say 

Why Join the Church? 

inevitably the time is coming, because it has happened before, 
when the social architects of the world, without recourse to the 
church, will become so embittered and frustrated and despairing, 
because of the f ruitlessness of their efforts, that they will lose heart 
and hope for the task. It will then be the responsibility of the 
church, as it has been in the times past, to inspirit the world with a 
new hope for social righteousness and justice. Even at such times, 
the church may be reduced to that bottom line which is not at all 
bad — that is, that one must love one's neighbor as oneself because 
that is the divine imperative, because God has said it must be so. In 
the last analysis, justice and equity in the world are probably more 
dependent upon obedience than upon will or humanitarian sensi- 

Having said this much, the fact still remains that the church 
cannot argue the case for its existence and its pertinence in the 
world today as that which sensitizes and prompts others to engage 
in the crusades for social, economic, and political justice. 

So the question remains. Why join the church? I warn you that 
the answer I am going to give you is not simple. It is difficult to 
comprehend and even more difficult to swallow. It may pass you by, 
not because you are not intelligent enough to understand it, but 
because I'm not intelligent enough and articulate enough to give it 
full expression. Of one thing we may be sure: the reason I propose 
for joining the church is not puny or trivial. The reason I propose 
for joining the church in today's world is that the church is the only 
institution and community equipped by God's mercy and grace to 
experience the supernatural and the transcendent — that is, to 
experience God — and to interpret and translate that experience in 
such a way as to give the word of God to the world. It is the only in- 
stitution I know which comes out of a smoke-filled room with 
winged creatures flying here and there and saying to each other, 
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts." It is the only institution 
that I know which, in that kind of experience, winds up with a 
word from God to the world which the world cannot possibly 

Let me deal first of all with the renewed interest in the supernat- 
ural or the transcendent. That's a mixed blessing. On the negative 
side of the ledger, of course, is the kind of renewed interest that 
takes on the form of fascination with the occult reflected by the 

The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

modern cinema, in which demon-possessed persons, usually 
young girls, evil-eye the whole family and the community about 
them to their own destruction. But that is a fascination with the 
supernatural which ontologically, on the basis of its being, on the 
basis of its appearance, gives reason to suggest the reality of the 

A more formidable matter, but I think not yet what we look for, is 
the attempt of serious-minded scholars and others to establish the 
fact of the supernatural. Peter Berger, that distinguished sociologist 
with some religious orientation, wrote a book called A Rumor of 
Angels. The essence of that book was, as he argued from play and 
humor and a sense of damnation — as he argued from these ap- 
pearances — that these manifestations in our history constituted a 
rumor of angels. Berger was saying, in a sense, when he wrote that 
book, that if you will look for the signs and for the rumors, you may 
encounter the transcendent. Yet Berger, although claiming to be a 
Christian, is a Christian outside the church, which I think is nigh 
unto impossible. He talks about a Christian who discovers Christ in 
God's love and presence in the anguish of human experience, but 
he does not want to identify the Christ, the redeeming presence of 
God in the world, with Jesus of Nazareth — with Jesus whose body 
as the Christ, the risen Christ, is the church. It is a formidable 
argument; it is a good and well-written book; but when you get 
through reading it, you get the impression that what Berger really is 
trying to do is to say "Well, there is some transcendence about us/' 
and with that Christmas word somewhat changed, "Yes, Virginia, 
there is a supernatural." 

There is another negative aspect of the church and the supernat- 
ural which constitutes, I think, a heresy within the church: that is 
the present trend, growing all the more popular, to identify the 
human spirit with the Holy Spirit so as to make them almost 
indistinguishable, one not distinct from the other. Whenever this 
happens one gets the sense that one has encompassed within one's 
own spirit the transcendent and the supernatural. God and his 
Spirit become terribly small. I think I agree with E. J. Tinsley that 
the true mystics of all the ages always raised a caution against 
making too much of their experiences — always said that expe- 
riences are not to be clung to or induced as if these spiritual expe- 
diences are the ultimate in the religious pilgrimage. 

Why Join the Church? 5 

Let me repeat, therefore, as over against these kinds of negative 
experiences of the supernatural, that the church of God's mercy is 
the only community and institution equipped — prepared to move 
from an experience with the supernatural and the transcendent 
into the declaration of the word of God to the people. That happens, 
if the scriptures are to be trusted, almost without exception, within 
the context, and never outside the context, of the Judeo-Christian 
history and tradition. That is the church's fundamental distinction. 

In the year that King Uzziah died, there was Isaiah in the temple 
with all those winged creatures flying around, all that place filled 
with smoke, voices coming out of the mist: "Holy, holy, holy is the 
Lord God of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory." What 
happened to Isaiah? Repentance and confession. Not being stupi- 
fied or stunned with the vision of the supernatural, but rather 
repentance and confession: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean 
lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." Upon that 
kind of confession and repentance there came healing, and then the 
voice of the Lord said, "Whom shall we send? Who will go for us? 
Isaiah said, "Here I am; send me." From the loftiest, most esoteric of 
experiences, it reduces to where Isaiah says "I'm ready to go. Tell me 
what to say." And the Lord tells him what to say. Moses was not 
transfixed at that burning bush, a bush that burned but was not 
consumed. Out of that experience, Moses strode into Egypt and said 
those words which still ring as a slogan for freedom in our own 
time: "Let my people go." 

This finds its culmination, of course, in John 1: In the beginning 
was the Word. The Word was with God; the Word was God. There 
was not anything made without that Word. The Word became flesh 
and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. The Word came to his 
own people and his own people received him not. But to everyone 
who received that Word, those were given power to become the 
children of God. And, Professor Berger, the Word was Christ, Jesus 
of Nazareth. Berger wants Christ who is a concept, but that was 
Christ who was Jesus of Nazareth. 

The idea that the church can take the supernatural and translate 
it into the Word never has found in scripture higher expression 
than in the Ephesian letter. I never read that third chapter of Ephe- 
sians without being shocked and startled and excited. I hope you 
heard it as if for the first time, where Paul, or who writes in his 

The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

name, says, "I was given the gospel by the grace of God, that I 
might know the mystery of God which was hidden from men in 
former generations. That mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow- 
heirs of God's grace/' Then he goes on to say, "I was given this 
gospel to reveal the mystery of God which had been hidden in the 
ages" — and now hear this — "that through the church the mani- 
fold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and 
the powers of the heavenly places." The wisdom of God, for the 
people of the earth, but not only for the people of the earth — think 
of it — the wisdom of God through the church is even beamed back 
to transcendent people, the figures — whatever, I do not know — 
the figures in the heavenly places. As John McKay said one time, 
the church was a seminar for angels. I don't know whether you 
believe that or not; that is not the point. It's still the primary reason 
for joining the church, that the wisdom of God is made known 
through the church to the heavenly and the earthly figures. It is 
that the wisdom of God has been given to the church to be articulat- 
ed and given word in the world. The implication certainly is that 
without the church, that wisdom of God is lost in the world. 

In that context, let me pick a fight deliberately. You all accuse me 
of picking more fights than I do, but when I do, I'll confess it. So I 
deliberately pick a fight with person or persons unknown, one or 
more, who wrote that statement 'with regard to the sesquicenten- 
nial of Wake Forest University. The statement reads in part that the 
diversity of the beautiful and noble attributes contained in Western 
literature may be dissolved into just a few fundamental alterna- 
tives. The truly human life requires either piety and obedience or 
reason and contemplation. One need not reject one or the other, but 
one must make the choice between the two, as to which is the 
source of the highest wisdom by which man will achieve his high- 
est purpose. 

Even some of the wiser faculty believe that to be a kind of 
impertinent doggerel. I am not going to treat it like that. I am 
simply saying that it is written without the benefit of the church. I 
don't mean to be condescending when I say that it's the best that 
Athens and the academy can do. It isn't quite cricket — for Athens 
or the academy or the university or whatever — it isn't quite cricket 
to say, "Now the truly human life requires either piety and obedi- 

Why Join the Church? 7 

ence or reason and contemplation." It isn't quite cricket to mention 
piety and obedience without mentioning God. Given the human 
ego, given a choice between reason and contemplation and piety 
and obedience, as if that's a free-standing choice, anybody is going 
to choose reason and contemplation. That's the reason they always 
go to Athens if they're planning their trip without any divine 
guidance. Piety and obedience make sense only if one who chooses 
piety and obedience has been already chosen by God and called to, 
and called upon, and is responding. Now that's the wisdom that the 
church understands and so many people do not understand. We do 
not, in a free-standing position, decide to be truly human by piety 
and obedience. The voice from on high calls to us, as it called to 
Abraham and on, and then we obey. 

I doubt that you will hear that voice outside the church. If you 
don't want to hear it, don't join the church. If you do want to hear it, 
you'd better join. Amen. 

Tribulation and Good Cheer 

January 19, 1975 
Ezekiel 24:15-24; John 16:25-33 

What is going on inside a man, when he gives no evidence of 
mourning at the death of his beloved wife — the delight of his 
eyes? That is the way it was with Ezekiel. One night his wife died 
and the next morning he got up and went about his business as 

He was indeed a strange man. The book which bears his name 
had a hard time getting by early Jewish scholars on its way to the 
Old Testament canon. There are reports of an ancient Jewish regula- 
tion forbidding those under 30 years of age to read the beginning 
or the end of the book. Some rabbis would not permit the first 
chapter, because of its unusual and radical imagery, to be read in the 

Ezekiel's actions, in response to his wife's death, are thought to 
have been one of the many oracles recorded in his book. This does 
little to lessen the problem so far as the strangeness of his actions is 
concerned. By the simplest of definitions, an oracle is "an introduc- 
tory formula to a divinely inspired message." This means that 
Ezekiel did what he did because God was using him to bring a 
prophetic message to the people. So the prophet acted out the word 
of God in a dramatic symbol. The word first came to Ezekiel: 

Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes 
away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep 
nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no 
mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your 
shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of 

10 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

The story continues with one of the most poignant lines of 
scripture; that is, Ezekiel's terse account of his obedience: ". . . and at 
evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was 

". . . and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did 
as I was commanded." That does bear repeating! 

And doing as he was commanded was to get up and go about his 
business as usual on the morning after his wife had died. Carry on, 
Ezekiel! Intercept the flood of tears spewing from your heartbreak 
before they reach your eyes. Sigh but not aloud. Make your moan- 
ing sound like a growling in the bowels. Do not give in to grief. Let 
no mourners break bread with you. Put on your hat and shoes and 
walk about like a man who has things to do and cannot be distract- 
ed by bereavement. 

No less unusual was the question put by the people when they 
realized the strangeness of Ezekiel's actions. It went like this: "Will 
you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting 
thus?" Until reading it more carefully, this time around, I had 
always assumed that the people were mostly upset by Ezekiel and 
that their questioning was an indirect criticism of his apparent 
hardhearted response to his loss. This was not at all the case. No 
criticism may be inferred from the question as it is written. Neither 
are we to assume that Ezekiel is playing the role of a stoic, a brave 
and courageous man, taking life as it comes without whimper or 

It is best to trust the perception of the people. Ezekiel was their 
prophet. They had watched him before. Whatever he was doing in 
their midst was a potential lesson for them. His oracular action in 
this case was a mystery to them. They did not understand it. But 
they gambled that his action was some kind of dramatic symbol. 
Thus they did not ask "Ezekiel, what is going on? Didn't you love 
your wife?" And they did not talk among themselves saying "Eze- 
kiel is a brave and a strong man. I wonder how he does it?" No, 
none of this. The question was "Will you not tell us what these 
things mean for us, that you are acting thus?" 

What did it mean? 

So far as Ezekiel was concerned, it meant that the message of the 
word of God transcends all other concerns. It meant that the burden 
of God's message to the world cannot be sloughed off, even when 

Tribulation and Good Cheer 11 

personal burdens seem to be too much in and of themselves. 

Indeed it meant that the prophet, whether he is a professional 
preacher or a layman, must make use of his suffering so as to 
declare in stronger terms the redemptive word of God. Suffering is 
not designed to make him tough, inured to hardships, and stoical in 
response. It is to make him sensitive, to help him understand the 
tragedy of others, and to identify him with the burden of others so 
that no load is unshared, no load is to be handled alone. 

The servant of God is not permitted to cry helplessly when a 
brother or sister is undone with grief and suffering. He cannot be 
embittered by his own distress so as to resent the joys of others. One 
whose husband is dead or whose child is wayward must not envy 
another woman her living and vibrant man, or another mother her 
sturdy and stalwart child. This was what the word meant to Eze- 

And when the people asked what it meant for them, he replied 
that when Jerusalem fell and when their sons and daughters, left 
behind as they were carried into exile, perished before the sword, 
they were not to cry, nor mourn, nor break bread with mourners. 
That was his direct word to them. But the question why remains. 

It is all the more a question since mourning was very much the 
thing to be done in those days. To refuse to mourn in time of 
tragedy was improper. Mourning, developed to a professional skill, 
provided for eulogy, for lamentation and for consolation. 

So far as Ezekiel's prophecy was concerned, the plight of the 
people of God, because of their unrighteousness, was much too sad 
for tears. He was a prophet of unrelieved doom, it would appear. 
Nothing was deserving of eulogy. There was no efficacy in lamenta- 
tion. No consolation was to be expected. 

But the doom was not really that complete. For if the people 
would refrain from mourning, they would know that Yahweh was 
the Lord God. Do not recoil from that possibility, as if the Lord God 
were engaging in some egocentric craving for status. Even in times 
of the greatest tragedies and despair, to know that the Lord is God is 
to know that the worst to befall us is not outside his control. To say 
that God is not absent from tragedy is to raise the question of his 
goodness. But even when evil holds sway, and even when God 
seems to cause or, at least, to allow it, it is still heartening to know 
that he has the power to reverse and redeem the situation. 

12 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

I am never quite willing to assure and convince myself of the 
goodness of God at the expense of the power of God. That would be 
to say that because God is good, he is powerless to do anything 
about the evil which befalls us. The people of Ezekiel's time were 
being asked to forego absolute assurance of God's goodness in order 
to be assured of his power. He told them what to do in the face of 
utter tragedy. He insisted that mourning would be of no avail. And 
if they acted out that command, they would know that the Lord, he 
is God. For them and for us, this is the most necessary understand- 
ing in times both fair and foul. 

I remember standing at the bedside of a young girl dead from 
reaction to medicines prescribed to cure a throat infection. It was so 
great a tragedy as to leave her parents and me numb and stricken 
with wonder and anger. The mother found her small voice as we 
left the hospital room — enough to say, "It is God's will." I thought 
her husband would strike her. He was angry at the thought and 
angry with God at the possibility. He did not — could not believe 
that God would do this. Theologically, I agreed with the husband. 
Perhaps I still do. But there is this nagging reminder. That mother is 
still a lovely and beautiful person. That father is a broken and 
drunken man. Maybe the response to the daughter's death, differ- 
ent as it was between the two, is not the only reason, or even a 
reason, for this outcome, but I have not been able to keep from 
wondering about it across these years. 

It may have been that God's ban on mourning had another 
reason. It could have been an omen of what was to come. Perhaps 
his silence and apparent unconcern for Ezekiel and the people was 
because he knew the eventual outcome. Perhaps he is silent and 
absent from us at the nadir of our lives in order to reduce us to 
knowing that he is the Lord God. This is ultimate rather than the 
history of our own personal sorrows. History is meaningful but it 
is not ultimate. 

With the advent of Christianity, strengthening Judaism's resur- 
rection faith, and refining it as well, mourning became less custom- 
ary. Perhaps God did what he did, so that Jesus might be able to say 
and be understood later on: "Blessed are those that mourn for they 
shall be comforted." Maybe only so could we now understand that 
we are not to be comforted because we mourn or as a result of our 
mourning. We are to be comforted because the Lord, he is God. And 

Tribulation and Good Cheer 13 

he can comfort us, when our plight is far too deep and tragic to be 
eased by our own mourning. 

So it was that our Lord, knowing how near the cross had come to 
be, turned to his disciples and said to them in that upper room: "In 
the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have over- 
come the world." In the midst of inevitable tribulation, he called for 
hope and courage. That is what he asked for. He was not thinking 
of laughter. He was not talking about rooting for the home team 
when he mentioned cheer. It was to have hope and courage in the 
face of the world's inevitable tribulation. 

When tribulation and affliction presses in from every side, 
squeezing you between its powerful hands, until the heart labors, 
and veins constrict, and breath is short; when tribulation is so 
pronounced as to immobilize you; when there is nothing to do for 
self or for loved ones; when enemies are no longer imaginary but 
lash around you with power and leer into your face — do not 
mourn. Take courage. Embrace hope. Know that the Lord, he is 

The world's worst, and even its best, are not ultimate. It has been 
overcome. Christ has brought the kingdom nigh and to bear. And 
here he took the heaviest and cruelest blows of sin, paid its highest 
price, that of the wages of death, and emerged triumphantly. We die 
with him so that we live with him. He knew that he had won when 
he was willing to go to the cross. The outcome of the game was not 
in doubt but he had to play to the end. So must you. So must I. 
Mourning — no! Caring — yes! Sigh but not aloud. Get up, lest you 
drown in your tears. Put on your hat and shoes and walk about. Be 
of good cheer. The world has been overcome. 

Self -Denial and 
Christian Service 

March 11, 1985 
Psalm 84; Mark 8:34-9:1 

There is more to be feared from those who administer love than 
from those who administer justice. Although this may be contrary 
to our usual way of thinking, it is not simply a wrong way of 
thinking with which we ought to be concerned; the shape of indi- 
vidual lives and of society as well is determined primarily by the 
molding forces of justice and love. In this respect, love has a poten- 
tial for being more destructive than justice, rather than the other 
way around. 

One of the reasons for this reality is that justice has checks and 
balances and cannot be defined or practiced without referring to 
the definition and practice of love. By definition and practice, 
justice entails an element of mutual concern or mutual love. Justice 
is seldom, probably never, simply a matter of power. As a general 
rule, those who are treated unjustly are not powerful enough to 
redress the wrongs committed against them. Theirs is a hopeless 
cause unless and until a more powerful advocate undertakes their 
cause. And this will not come to pass unless the one who is power- 
ful enough to bring justice to bear has some regard and concern for 
the victim of injustice. 

On the other hand, love does not require justice in the same 
manner or to the same degree. When justice is the agenda, concern 
and love for the victim of injustice is required. In this circumstance, 
the unjust is not being loved, at least for whatever time as required 
to bring justice to pass. Love begins without regard for justice. If it is 
the kind of love which is beckoned by attractiveness, of whatever 


16 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

kind, matters of justice are not under consideration. If it is what 
qualifies as Christian love, love which is determined not by its 
object but by the one who decides to love, then such love is arbi- 
trary, even capricious in the best sense of the word, and is therefore 
not appreciably informed or influenced by a sense of justice. 

It is in this way that I claim that those who administer love are 
more to be feared than those who administer justice. By its very 
nature, justice is subject to checks and balances of whatever com- 
munity in which it is applied. In other words, justice is the product 
of a social mind in terms both of definition and application. It is 
impossible for an individual to decide by arbitrary means what is 

Love is not a product of a social mind. An individual may love 
what is attractive, what seems to be beneficial to the person, or by a 
decision of the will. In any such case, the wider community has 
little influence upon the decision that one makes to love another. 

It may therefore be generally assumed that justice, rather than 
love, is the best recourse for dealing with social problems, or per- 
haps a safer assumption is that justice is the best place to start when 
attacking such problems. But it must always be remembered that 
our obligation is not one of realizing perfect justice, because this is 
an impossible goal. We are obligated therefore only to seek the 
realization of approximate justice, the degree of which will be 
determined by the contextual possibilities. 

The problem of peace and the problem of hunger provide good 
examples for recognizing the complexities of applying justice. The 
quest for peace has split into two parts, one on each side of the work 
of the United Nations. There are those who argue for nuclear arms 
and strong national defenses as a deterrent to war because such 
weapons make war unthinkable. One element of this argument, 
overlooked by Russia and the United States, is that a balance of 
power is necessary if arms are to be a deterrent. Therefore, each 
country even as it seeks to persuade the other to disarm must guard 
against inequities. In other words, the United States must take care 
lest Russia were to become so weak that our own nation might be 
tempted to start a war. All assumptions that this nation would 
forever be incapable of doing such a thing can be embraced only by 
forgetting what we did in Grenada. 

The argument for nuclear disarmament, particularly a unilateral 

Self-Denial and Christian Service 17 

one, is born of naivete. And it is carried to its most absurd extreme 
when we suggest that even if this were to mean the defeat and 
destruction of our own country, we should love peace to such a 
degree as to be willing to sacrifice our land. 

The real question in all of this is, what has happened to the grand 
scheme of the United Nations? A fundamental reason for the UN's 
failure to bring the world any closer to peace is that it has no 
workable program for establishing justice. It is a tribute to modern 
men and women that they are able to subject their own selfish 
interests to the pursuit of justice within a wider community. This 
has proven to be impossible for the UN because it has never be- 
come a community. This failure means that justice has not been 
produced by a social mind because the UN has been little more 
than a place of competition for the selfish concerns of its participat- 
ing nations. 

Furthermore, whatever concern a sense of justice has spawned 
for the underdeveloped and underprivileged nations of the Third 
World has been generally aborted because these nations have 
shown a remarkable capacity for "biting the hand that feeds them." 
In short, the love which started from a vantage of justice has 
dissipated because of the abrasive demands by the nations of the 
Third World for a justice far beyond their deserving. 

This complication may be seen more clearly in respect to the 
plight of the hungry. If justice is to be served, no human being 
should suffer starvation or hunger in the world. In this case, a 
doctrine of human rights is to be understood as contending that 
one should not starve, simply because one is human. In this way 
justice therefore ushers in concern for the hungry, and thus a form 
of love is brought to pass. But if and when ultimate justice is served, 
the human rights of the individual may be outweighed by other 
considerations of justice. Is this person hungry because of shiftless- 
ness or sloth? Is it right to give money to a hungry family when the 
father will most certainly use the money for alcohol, leaving the 
mother and children no less hungry than had the money not been 
supplied? And is it not true that the attempt to alleviate the hunger 
of a nation of people is often brought to naught because of the 
corruption of the leaders of those people? The dictum may be that 
the justice which brings love to bear upon almost any kind of social 
problem will eventually negate that love if and when a perfect 
justice is pursued without compromise. 

18 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

All of this is to say that extreme justice benefits the deserving and 
the righteous. It disallows compassion and grace. It will not tolerate 
love for those whose human or civil rights have been forfeited by 
virtue of their sins of commission and omission. By definition and 
practice, justice must be on the side of the right rather than the 

The only alternative to such brutal justice when carried to its 
extreme is one of mercy grace, or love. The danger here is one of 
oversimplification. Mutual love, which is based on the reciprocity 
of give and take, and which is compatible with the pursuit of 
justice, will not suffice when the brutal consequences of extreme 
justice threaten to take their toll. Sacrificial love, which is arbitrary 
and thus without apparently logical motive, is the more effective 
answer. But although sacrificial love is invariably arbitrary, arbi- 
trary love is not at the same time and by the same token necessarily 
or invariably sacrificial. Or better said, in the complex world of 
human and national relations, the lover may not make as great a 
sacrifice as others who are dragged into the sacrificial act. For 
example, a Christian pacifist, with one's insistence that one's ac- 
tions should always conform to agape, selfless and sacrificial love, 
has no right to put one's nation into jeopardy by waging a peace 
which may mean not only the loss of the life of the pacifist but the 
destruction of the nation. The kingdom of God is the only kingdom 
which builds on sacrificial love. Loving a dangerous criminal in 
such a way as to prevent justice being demanded of that person 
would be permissible so long as only one's own life were endan- 
gered by such an act of mercy, but is impermissible if it means that 
the lives of others would also be imperiled. The gesture of the Pope 
in forgiving the man who tried to kill him was a merciful and 
permissible deed so long as the criminal remained in prison. Had 
the Pope insisted that his forgiveness be extended to the point of 
releasing the potential "hit man" from prison, this would have put 
a hired gun back into society and would not have been permissible 
because the Pope would have made others potential victims of that 

The point of plowing through these complicated relationships of 
love and justice is one of contending that men and women who 
give themselves to carving out programs for the solution of all 
social problems should limit themselves to administering justice 

Self -Denial and Christian Service 19 

and mutual love because these two qualities commend and support 
one another. What threatens the order and tranquility of our world 
is when men and women bring sacrificial love into situations by 
their own judgments and as they see fit. And this is done mostly by 
Christians who wrongly assume that all that is needed is an under- 
standing of the meaning of Christian love, which they are then free 
to apply willy-nilly to the problems of our society. Often in turning 
the other cheek, it is the second cheeks of others which are more 
likely to be slapped. Even the most ruthless tyrant is quite eager to 
forego slapping the other cheek of the romantic agapeist who offers 
it if this releases the tyrant to slap the other cheek of those who 
have not offered such a sacrifice. Far too many Christians have 
made the mistake of believing that sacrificial love may be applied 
regardless of the circumstance, that it may be applied as an ethic 
detached from God and Christ by any one who so decides, and that 
such a strategy, the strategy of the cross, no less, is guaranteed of 
success. The world may be better served by good people making no 
pretense of Christianity than by those who believe that they have 
graduated from the Church with a degree in Christian love. 

The truth of the matter is that only those who follow Jesus to the 
cross are capable of using the strategy of the cross. The truth of the 
matter is that no one can take someone else to the cross; that is not 
sacrificial love. The truth of the matter is that agape, sacrificial love, 
can never be bequeathed to any person thereafter to be a part of 
that person's character. The truth of the matter is that agape, or 
Christian love, cannot be practiced apart from the sacrifice of 
Christ. Our sacrifice is not sufficient to save the world. The world's 
redemption depends upon God's love and the sacrifice of Christ. We 
may be sacrificed with him but we cannot be sacrificed in his place. 
The fact is that sacrificial love is the love of God given to us and 
then through us to the world. We are incapable of agape unless we 
love with the love which God and Christ supply, unless we love as 
he has loved us. 

Christian action therefore begins with worship. We do not, as is 
worded on far too many church bulletins, "enter to worship and 
depart to serve." Service is worship. And if service is worship, it is 
put in proper perspective. Too many of us who are known as 
Christians want to use the church as some sort of pastoral pep rally 
from which we emerge full of love with which to supply a world 

20 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

which neither wants it nor can make any good use of it. And we see 
ourselves as the architects of a pure society drawn upon the inspira- 
tion of agape, which we believe to be an unencumbered possession 
of our own spirit. 

But such love is safe and safely applied only by those who would 
rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the 
tents of wickedness, and one might add, by those who would 
rather be doorkeepers in places of worship than the bright and 
energetic do-gooders who believe themselves to be the new mes- 
siahs. But this desire to be doorkeeper is not self-effacement, is not 
self-disparagement. The psalmist was speaking of priority, not self- 
hate. He would do anything — preferred to do anything for the 
sake of being counted among the faithful than to be enthroned 
among the unfaithful. And such doorkeepers make better servants 
in the world than those who believe they are beyond the need for 
worship and are now expected only to serve. 

When Jesus Christ said if one was to follow him he should deny 
himself, take up his cross and follow him, he was not asking for 
self-flagellation, disparagement, or even some form of Christian 
poverty. Self-denial in this context means dispossession, disowning 
oneself, disinheriting oneself. The context says as much — if you 
try to save your life you will lose it. 

The End of Parochialism 

and the 
Church-Related College 

August 22, 1971 
Preschool Workshop, Mars Hill College 

We are living in the last days of the parochial venture in modern 
history. That fact that it is now practically obscured by twilight's 
shadow does not in any way indicate that parochialism was a 
mistake from the beginning. It has enjoyed a successful and noble 
history. Institutions of higher learning in early America were most- 
ly under the aegis of the church. ". . . only the church had sufficient 
vitality and sufficient stability to undertake" that kind of effort. In a 
more general sense, it is safe to say that this nation would never 
have become the enlightened and humane land that it is without 
the parochial ventures of education, healing, and charity. Had the 
churches failed to enlarge their parishes so as to include these initial 
ministries, we would now be living in a comparatively impover- 
ished and savage country. 

This paper is concerned but with one phase of parochial history; 
namely, that of higher education. I boast of no special competence 
in this category. I do qualify so far as experienced observation is of 
any significance. I served a parish adjacent to the campus of Duke 
University in Durham, North Carolina, for a span of eighteen 
years. I am beginning my eighth year as the minister of the Wake 
Forest Baptist Church, which is located on the campus of Wake 
Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Out of that 
perspective comes the present conviction that the parochial ven- 
ture in higher education is no longer indicated and may no longer 
serve as a fruitful endeavor. What this portends for a college such as 


22 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Mars Hill in general and to its faculty and administration in par- 
ticular is the essence of my remarks. 

Let me say immediately that it does not mean the elimination of 
the raison d'etre for church-related colleges. It does not mean yet 
another endeavor forfeited by the church under an onus of failure. 
And it does not mean an even greater identity crisis for the admin- 
istration and faculty serving such institutions. Quite to the con- 
trary the future is promising if we can clearly recognize and adjust 
to the end of parochialism and conduct our work in the light of that 
recognition and adjustment. 

The barest definition of parochial will serve the ends of this paper. 
Webster's dictionary has it like this: "parochial — 1: of or relating to a 
church parish, 2: confined or restricted as if within the borders of a 

Obviously the second definition is more germane to the subject 
at hand. Like Wake Forest and others, Mars Hill College has been a 
confined and restricted institution "as if [it were] within the borders 
of a parish." Like all other respectable academic bodies, Mars Hill 
has chafed with increasing irritation under the itchy rash of such 
restriction and confinement. The more it has come to pursue truth 
under the spur of relentless excitement, the more it has realized the 
indispensability of free inquiry in academe, the more it has failed to 
recruit choice faculty members because of religious prejudice; and 
the more it has witnessed the disparity between ecclesiastical con- 
trol and financial support by and from the churches, the more has 
the rash and itching increased. This increased restlessness and re- 
bellion on the part of Mars Hill and her counterparts across the 
state and nation — both Baptist and otherwise — is an unmistak- 
ably convincing sign of the end of the parochial era in higher 

It is not the most significant sign. That is to be found in the 
currently small, but nonetheless inevitable, realization by the 
churches that their parochial endeavors are now operating under 
the law of diminishing returns. On the present stage, parochialism 
is self-defeating. To put it bluntly, Mars Hill has not and cannot 
keep the faith. 

Let me explain in this way. Despite the recent popularity of 
modern secularist champions the likes of Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Rob- 
inson, and Cox — along with the "death of God" entrepreneurs — 

The End of Parochialism and the Church-Related College 23 

the church has actually been secularizing its word just as long as it 
has practiced parochialism. It was in the secular business from the 
time that it sought to extend the horizons of its parish through 
related institutions, such as those of higher learning. This was its 
pilgrimage, for the sake of relevance, into a secular world that 
demanded the materialization of the gospel into tangible and perti- 
nent forms. You will see at once that I detect little difference be- 
tween the phenomenon of secularizing the church and sacralizing 
the world. Obviously, the secularizing efforts of the church were 
designed to enlarge the sacred dimensions of the world. 

At the very least, this was the intent and purpose of seculariza- 
tion under the parochial umbrella. With the enlargement of its 
mission, the church worked to extend its influence and its author- 
ity in like proportion. Its parochial institutions not only were 
shaped to make the gospel available in more immediate and practi- 
cal forms to the whole of society, they were designed to promote 
and keep the faith which the church espoused. The fact that the 
Roman Catholic Church has been more open in this avowed pur- 
pose than its Protestant counterparts does not mean that there has 
never been a strong Protestant parochial movement in this country. 
Its difference in zeal has been far less than its difference in con- 

By way of example, I still remember my astonishment at the 
arguments of some of my colleagues as they addressed the dancing 
controversy at Wake Forest in the late 1950s. A number of these 
colleagues were so steeped in the sectarian tradition as to disallow 
any suggestion that places of worship should be called the sanctu- 
ary in the churches. Auditorium was the only word allowed because 
sanctuary has the connotation of a "holy place." But during the 
heated concourse of that debate, I heard them argue that dancing 
should not be allowed on the campus of Wake Forest College be- 
cause that was holy ground. This is parochialism with its delicate 
extremities hanging out. The religious edifice itself has no "holy 
place" but the Christian college occupies "holy ground." 

However holy Wake Forest may have been in those days, you 
now have my word that it is holy no longer. Nor have I breathed 
any of that famed Christian atmosphere during my seven-year 
stint. Surely, if it were floating around, seven years is long enough 
to get a whiff of it at least. But the secularist has greater lung power. 

24 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

He breathes harder. Like Mars Hill, Wake Forest has not kept the 
faith because it could not. What is more, Mars Hill and Wake Forest 
have not kept the faith because they should not. It never really was, 
and it certainly is not now, the business of any college to forgo 
education for the sake of indoctrination. The college found this out 
long before the church. Now that the church is stumbling upon this 
somewhat painful realization, parochial higher education cannot 
be sustained. 

One of the reasons that the churches are losing their zeal for 
parochial education at the college level is because the endeavor is 
proving to be nonproductive. So far as the anticipated results from 
parochialism are concerned, they can spend their money more 
effectively in other media. "No purpose is more difficult to 
achieve," writes Myron F. Wick in his The Church-Related College, 
"than the development of a community ethos in which intellectual 
adventure is possible in an atmosphere of moral concern and com- 
mitment. Studies which have attempted to measure the changing 
value structures of college students show no evidence that church- 
related colleges are any more effective generally on this point than 
other types of institution." This is to say that if and when intellectu- 
al adventure is taken seriously, it so occupies the time and energy of 
the church-related college as to make it as inept at encouraging 
moral concern and commitment with any more success than its 
secular counterparts, private or state supported. In other and pain- 
ful words, students are no more moral and dedicated as the result of 
being in church-related colleges than would be the case with other 
institutions of higher learning. Parochialism does not any longer 
pay off in higher education. 

In another category, churches are discovering that parochialism 
is even counterproductive. If they insist on making parochialism 
pay off, they sustain anti-intellectual communities which are hos- 
tile to the educational purposes and justifications of the colleges. I 
confess to being dogmatic at this point. There are those who will 
argue that the highest intellectual achievements are highly possible 
in parochialistic colleges. Such arguments will not wash. Wherever 
the processes of free inquiry are restrained, as they always are 
under parochialism, the intellectual venture is vitiated. 

That the churches are beginning to admit to this fact is best 
illustrated by the Reverend Mr. Oral Roberts, founder and presi- 

The End of Parochialism and the Church-Related College 25 

dent of Oral Roberts University. When this institution was founded 
it promised to be the Bob Jones of the Midwest. It was to keep the 
faith in the very laboratory of the acids of intellectualism. During 
the summer, however, Mr. Roberts shared with his television audi- 
ence the greatest single event that had occurred at the university 
since its founding. Was it that a campuswide revival had taken 
place? Had 75 percent of the student body committed itself to "full- 
time Christian service," whatever that is? Had Oral Roberts Uni- 
versity been baptized by the Holy Spirit? Had the Ford Foundation 
given a grant to the university to establish a medical school com- 
pletely staffed with "faith-healers"? The answer was no on every 
count. The great event was the accreditation of the university. And 
as you well know, most accrediting agencies are not comprised of 
angels but of very secularly minded men. When Oral Roberts 
decided that accreditation is the greatest thing that could have ever 
possibly happened to his institution, secularism has triumphed 
and parochialism is dead. We should have known that this would 
happen when he became a Methodist. 

Yet another factor impinges upon this scene. As the church 
sought to use higher education in its parochial sweep across the 
land, it allowed its parochial arm to change from gestures of procla- 
mation to gestures of problem solving. In other words it succumbed 
to the demands of the practical and relevant. No longer was man's 
maladjustment and misalignment due to alienation from God. His 
troubles stemmed from disarrayed emotions and a mind that was 
not reaching its mature potential. But as the church-related college 
began to approach individual and social problems on this level, it 
was immediately apparent that secular schools could do these jobs 
as well, if not better. And by all odds, they could do it cheaper. This 
is but another way of saying that the main responsibility of the 
church is proclamation and celebration, not problem solving. 

An advertisement for a particular brand of liquor has shown 
more imagination than the pulpit on this count. Of this liquor it 
reads: "It is not for solving problems / It is for celebrating solu- 
tions." The idea so excited me that I was tempted to go and buy a 
fifth. But then I decided to see if the church might once again adopt 
some such style. 

The end of the parochial era will not leave the church unaffect- 
ed. As I see it, for the time being it must seek to rediscover and to 

26 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

reestablish the distinctive spheres of the sacred and the profane. In 
the drawing of such boundaries, the church-related college will not 
be within the circle of the sacred. In a culture that is satiated with 
secularism, largely the result of the church's attempt to sacralize the 
world, the church must learn to be itself. 

New techniques of engaging the world at its junctures of need 
and of ethically confronting it at its junctures of rebellion will have 
to be devised. Such techniques will no longer feature a middleman 
— the parochial arm with which to serve and judge and influence 

The temptation to proceed with what will be demanded of the 
church in this new circumstance is almost overwhelming. But for 
the purpose of this paper we must not yield to temptation. Howev- 
er, it will be good for its colleges and universities if it recognizes and 
affirms the sage advice of Peter Berger: 

One may begin by admiring Christians for their political 
involvement. But then one must admire all the others, includ- 
ing the Black Muslims and the atheists who share these in- 
volvements. If the political struggles have become the very 
reason for being a Christian in the first place, this reason will 
lose plausibility the more one involves oneself in these strug- 
gles. If secular aims define the mission of the church in society, 
the conclusion that the church is unnecessary is inevitable, no 
matter how noble these secular aims may be. 

In a confessional mood, perhaps we should allow for the possibil- 
ity that the secularist parochial venture of the church in most areas, 
as well as higher education, was motivated by Charlie Brown's 
sidekick, the security-blanketed Linus. In contemplating his call- 
ing, Linus confides to Charlie Brown: "If I ever get to be a theolo- 
gian I am going to be what they call a theologian in the market- 

"So you can reach the people?" Charlie asks. 

"No, that's where the lettuce is." 

I have suggested from the outset that this did not mean the end of 
the church-related or Christian college. I have every hope that the 
end of parochialism will allow us to have a "Christian college" in a 
new and much more acceptable way. I must define my term here. 
Borrowing from the late Alexander Miller, I am using the term 

The End of Parochialism and the Church-Related College 27 

"Christian" not as it refers "to some measure of moral or spiritual 
achievement, but to visible identification, normally by the sign of 
Baptism, with a visible Community." This is what the term "Chris- 
tian" meant in its original setting. All baptized persons were Chris- 
tians no matter how good or bad they might have been. "By anal- 
ogy this would mean that when we ask about the Christianity of a 
college, we are not undertaking the impossible chore of assessing 
its morality or spirituality: we are asking simply if it is 'baptized' — 
that is, if it is visibly and formally related to the church." 

Although Mars Hill College will in all probability no longer be 
the parochial stepchild of the church in the forseeable future, this 
does not mean that it can no longer be a church-related or Christian 
college. In other words it can be that and have some very raunchy 
students and some very atheistic professors. The transition that I 
am predicting is more one of mood and style than of the funda- 
ments of the relationship. Thus the question before us centers on 
the nature of a nonparochial Christian college. 

At the outset I want to modify slightly Orville W. Wake's defini- 
tion of the Christian college. In an article called "The Emerging 
Image of the Church College" in the periodical Encounter, this 
church college president wrote: "The college is principally a setting 
which the church makes possible in order that the processes of 
scholarship, of learning, of inquiry can confront and be confronted 
by the demands of Christian faith or the ultimate aspirations of 
Christians." In the place of the church's making this possible, I 
would suggest an emendation which prompts the church to en- 
courage this kind of setting by entering into contract with the 
college willing to create and maintain that kind of scene. 

This would mean that the church would buy the services of 
educational institutions willing and eager to allow the intellectual 
venture to be confronted by the word of the church and by its style 
of life. 

Once this kind of contractual agreement is settled and the church 
is willing to pay a part of the cost, two assumptions ought to be 
made. Once again I quote from Miller: 

When the church for whatever reasons, historical or other, 
accepts responsibility for some part of the work of higher 
education, its first obligation is to the work itself. . . . The church 

28 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

loses all right to hold the work of higher education under its 
aegis if it does any violence to the conditions of true education 
for any reason whatever, even a ''Christian" reason. 

Surely, the church cannot justify its association with higher edu- 
cation if it would use and distort it merely for its own purposes. Its 
purported sense of mission and its concern for its own integrity 
militate against that. The fact that neither mission nor integrity 
have persuaded the church to abstain from such unchristian exploi- 
tation is a sorry chapter in its history So the first obligation of the 
church in higher education is to the work of higher education. 

This assumption ought to be coupled with another one. The 
church may rightfully assume that the Christian college and its 
functions "will confront and be confronted by the demands of 
Christian faith or the ultimate aspirations of Christians." In addi- 
tion to tangible services purchased outright by the church from the 
college, the church-related institution is obligated to provide a 
setting in which the church may engage in dialogue with what is 
not church. In a very real sense, it is not the responsibility of the 
Christian college to bring the Christian and non-Christian dialogue 
to a proper decision. It is the responsibility of the college to discour- 
age any decision so that the dialogue continues. 

However, the history of the debate between militant Christianity 
and militant atheism reveals that the Christian is somewhat less 
likely to use his authority to suppress the atheist than vice versa. I 
have not heard of many Christian professors, on nonchurch facul- 
ties, trying to suppress the secular tones of that institution. At most, 
such persons do no more than request an even break for the faith. 
Although I am not for prayer in the public schools, this present 
movement to that end is simply that and nothing more. On the 
other hand, I have witnessed the surprising antics of many unbe- 
lieving professors on Christian campuses, who not only insist on 
their freedom to give evidence of their unbelief but who contend 
that the college even in its ceremonial and social styles must obliter- 
ate the Christian image. That would indeed mean the end of dia- 

I am therefore committed to the principle that the Christian 
college, formally related to and supported by the church, should 
use key administrative positions for assuring that the relationship 

The End of Parochialism and the Church-Related College 29 

will continue in ways both free and honorable. The presidents, 
provosts, deans, and to some extent, departmental chairmen should 
assume some such responsibility. Although a Christian college 
need not require its faculty members to sign abstracts of orthodoxy 
in order to be Christian, neither should it employ a faculty member 
so that he can be the professional atheist on campus by virtue of his 

Let me set some brief remarks about the faculty, in this entire 
context, in the light of what I understand to be some of your 
educational innovations. As I understand you are moving in the 
direction of more flexible curricula and are seeking to engage the 
student as a person in his own right. 

The humanist on the faculty will have no problem with this 
approach. He always puts persons above things and cherishes man 
beyond all other values. He is an excellent educator so far as mo- 
tives are concerned. His belief that man is at once the universal 
question and answer makes the education of man of supreme 
importance. Since he and the student have only one another, we 
may be sure that he will give his very best to that student in the 
total relationship. I cannot refrain from saying, because I am a 
Christian, that the fundamental flaw in any person, either self- 
made or fashioned by another human, is that he is the product of 
unskilled labor. 

I would rather predict that the Christian professor will have 
more difficulty with person-centered education than his humanis- 
tic colleague. His concern for the will of God, his link with tradi- 
tional faith, his commitment to the family of God will not allow 
him to put himself or any other person in the position of singular 
glory. He agrees with the humanist that man is the universal ques- 
tion. He vigorously disagrees that man is the universal answer. 

His approach to the student will be that of the evangelist. Does 
that boggle your mind loose from its moorings? Before your shud- 
der at this concept separates you from your dentures, let me elabo- 
rate. For one thing, this is not a devious means for disguising the 
return of parochialism to the Christian campus. Evangelism, in its 
truest sense, cannot operate under the aegis of parochialism. Its 
elimination frees the Christian professor to relate to the student in 
the name of Christ without being suspect of trying to put more 
muscle in the parochial biceps. He evangelizes the student by 

30 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

proclaiming the good news that he cannot and need not be his own 
salvation. In distinction from the humanist, he contends that the 
education of the student is not the summum bonum of life although 
it is the chief end of the work of the college. He seeks to educate the 
student so that the latter will become a chief actor in dramatizing 
the redemptive love of God for all men on the stage of history. In a 
word, he puts education in its proper perspective, "designed ... to 
honor God with the best service of our minds, and to put the 
Christian case to the godly hazard of free discussion." 

As to his relationship with his humanistic colleagues, I have this 
to say. One of my good friends in the department of philosophy is a 
fine humanist and an honest atheist. From time to time we tackle 
each other in a heated but friendly discussion. Not too long ago, he 
scored rather heavily in one of our debates. He knew, others knew, 
and I knew that he had logically reduced my argument and me to 
shambles. Then, with his customary gentleness, he observed: "I 
guess you will have to give up on me. Your arguments simply give 
me no good reason for believing in God or for being a Christian." In 
reply, I admitted that he had won his case in logic, but then I went 
on to say: "No, I will not give up on you. I must now intercede for 
you, which means that I am putting you at the top of my prayer 

He Died. So What? 

March IS, 1984 
Mark 10:32-44; I Corinthians 1:10-25 

Jesus Christ took less pains to describe his own vocation than 
that of his disciples. He talked more about what they should do 
than about what he was doing. There is no evidence that Jesus was 
secretive or furtive concerning his work. That he thought it to be 
insignificant is out of the question, in light of the information that 
we have. Perhaps the most logical explanation for Jesus's apparent 
reluctance to define his vocation occurs in the Fourth Gospel on the 
occasion when Jesus stubbornly persisted in washing his disciples' 
feet. He said to Peter, "What I am doing you do not know now, but 
afterward you will understand." This one sentence commentary 
may hold the clue to Christ's relatively noncommittal posture con- 
cerning his mission in whole. 

His usual reticence in elaboration of precise detail was never 
more pronounced than when he was talking about his impending 
death. It is more than passing strange, is it not, that he said little to 
his disciples about his forthcoming death, leaving them without 
much recourse from which to reflect on its purpose, meaning, and 
effect. My first reaction is to wish that he had said much more about 
his death so that we who live on this back side of the event might 
refer to original sources for our understanding. On second thought, 
however, the death of Christ for us is left in a more dynamic posture 
because he has presented it to us in such a way as to demand an 
active and enduring faith concerning its purpose, meaning, and 

Although his references were scant, we would ponder what Jesus 
did have to say about his death. Almost without exception such 
remarks, even if not to be considered as secondary, were made 


32 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

somewhat obliquely, prompted, as they were, by answers to ques- 
tions raised about his crucifixion. 

The last sentence of the text from Mark reads, "For the Son of 
man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a 
ransom for many." Jesus said this to the disciples after James and 
John had requested reservations to sit at his left and right hand 
when he came into his glory. The emphasis here seems to have been 
as much upon living as a servant as upon dying as a servant. 

In John 12:32 Jesus says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the 
earth, will draw all men unto myself." The disconcerting note in 
this regard is that he did not, and has not, drawn the world unto 
himself by his death. Did John know this already, or when he 
explained that Jesus "said this to show by what death he was to 
die," did he think that such explanation was the main purpose of 
Christ's remark? Such interpretation is supported by the fact that 
John also reported that Jesus spoke of being lifted up from the 
earth, a Roman form of execution appropriated from the Phoeni- 
cians and Persians, as a prediction that he would not be crucified by 
the Jews, for whom such execution was unlawful. 

Let us turn, in the third instance, to his words at the Last Supper. 
"This is my body." The Gospels leave it with that. It remained for 
Paul to add the words "which is for you" or "which is broken for 
you." Although his death was certain by the time of the supper, 
Jesus's explanation was quite brief. The cup was given the greater 
emphasis, more than body: "This is my blood of the covenant, 
which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." 

All the more remarkable is that Jesus did not ever speak of his 
cross. He did not mention by word this great symbol of our faith. 
Christ employed the metaphor only with reference to his disciples. 
They were told to bear their own crosses in two situations. Matthew 
10 and Luke 14 employ the metaphor as descriptive of the probable 
necessity of separating from one's family in order to follow Jesus. 
Matthew 16 and Mark 8 speak of bearing one's cross as one follows 
Jesus to his death, but not necessarily the death of the one who 
follows. Following is cross bearing in both cases. 

When Jesus announced to his disciples that he was going to 
Jerusalem, there to suffer and die, this was all that he had to say. 
Mark, who liked secrets and never used any more words than he 
thought he had to, does not even introduce the element of necessity 

He Died. So What? 33 

into the impending crucifixion. As Jesus and the disciples were on 
the road to Jerusalem, he said to them, "Behold, we are going up to 
Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests 
and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him 
to the Gentiles, and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and 
scourge him, and kill him . . ." In and of themselves the words add 
up to a death as senseless as it was terrible. 

Matthew softened the story a bit with his explanation that Jesus 
was under necessity, divine necessity being assumed, to go to Jeru- 
salem. Jesus himself said as much, according to the record, but that 
was the extent of the announcement of the death which there 
awaited him. He told his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, 
which was the only reason that he gave. 

In the scripture, therefore, the architect of the doctrine of the 
cross and of most of all which that means was the great missionary 
to the Gentiles, Paul the apostle. With one exception, that of the 
Letter to the Hebrews, the writings of Paul contain the sum total of 
what is said about the cross in the New Testament. At times in rich 
metaphors and again in words economically direct, Paul weaves 
into the fabric of his theology the thread of the doctrine of crucifix- 
ion and atonement, a thread without which his faith and dogma, 
and ours as well, would come apart at the seams. 

Of some such texture are the words of his letter to Corinth: 

Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and 
not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied 
of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are 
perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of 
God. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we 
preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to 
Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, 
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 

"Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus 
Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the 
world" stands out in the letter to the Galatians. And in Ephesians: 

He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken 
down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh 
the law of commandments, and ordinances, that he might 

34 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making 
peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body 
through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. 

And in Philippians: 

Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ 
Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count 
equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, 
taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of 
men. And being found in human form he humbled himself 
and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 

Finally, in Colossians: 

And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision 
of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having 
forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond 
which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set 
aside, nailing it to the cross. 

Although the exegetes caution against placing too much stress on 
"uncircumcision of your flesh" as designating that Paul's audience 
was primarily Gentile, I dare to say that such a possibility cannot be 
summarily rejected. This final passage does indeed send out a 
signal primarily to the Gentile world. Although we may not know 
all of the reasons that the Greek church concentrated on the birth of 
Christ more than his death, we do know that history records the 
fact that the cross was adopted as the central symbol of the faith in 
the religious West. The Roman Catholics were the first to appropri- 
ate this symbol, with their sign of the crucifix. Protestants removed 
the figure of the dying Christ, emptying the cross because of their 
commitment to an empty tomb as well. 

I have told you this much in order to burden you with the 
challenge that the so what? of the cross of our Savior is up to us, to 
you and to me. It is not up to us to make it real, to give it meaning. 
Nor does its effect rely upon us alone. It is up to us, however, to 
recognize and appropriate its meaning, helped immeasurably by 
the mind and work of Paul, and to search out its effect in our own 
lives and those about us. It is up to us to avail ourselves of the love 
and power of Christ which makes for our salvation and that of the 

He Died. So What? 35 

world, and although we cannot supply the power of the cross, we 
can proclaim Christ crucified and risen as the hope of the world. 

What here we are called upon to do is to give meaning to the 
miracle, interpreting the sign implicit in the cross. Thus, we are 
under obligation to respond to a most difficult task, to interpret the 
sign on which we are most dependent. Through the years the 
church has battled constantly with the temptation to interpret the 
cross in such a way as to make it more manageable for the human 
mind. Among such attempts is what is called the "moral influence 
theory" concerning the cross. This interpretation suggests that the 
main force of the cross is its influence upon the faithful, as well as 
others, to live sacrificial lives. When noble men and women die for 
a cause greater than themselves or their own, there is a tendency to 
think of such deaths as the death of the cross. This is not so. When 
we die for others, we die as martyrs rather than as saviors. And 
what is missing from such martyrdom is power and wisdom rather 
than love. Paul may have wanted to make some such distinction 
when, in the Corinthian letter, he wrote of God's power and wis- 
dom concerning the cross rather than of love. 

If the cross is held dear by us, we should be sympathizing with 
the Christians of Poland today, whose churches are being stripped 
of the cross by the government. The meaning of the cross to the 
Catholic Church is not to be denied, and, therefore, the removal of 
the crosses from their churches is a tragic matter. But we must take 
care lest we go to the opposite extreme, to use the form of the cross 
for everything under the sun except the truth that it should signify. 

The time may not be far away when America will have civilized 
and politicized almost every one of its religious symbols. Although 
constant vigilance is appropriate in defense of the principle of the 
separation of church and state, I do not believe that our most 
immediate danger is the loss of the principle of separation. For 
example, we have no reason to suspect that some kind of state 
church is in the offing. Our danger is one of a different kind of 
secularism. Instead of the establishment of a favored church, our 
government is now tending to incorporate the mission of the 
church under its own banner, so as to make the church unnecessary. 
This is what is going on in the drive to put prayer in the schools. It 
is certainly what is going on when the Supreme Court, accurately I 
believe, ruled that a creche could be placed at the expense of the 

36 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

public in the Christmas display of a New England town because 
the nativity scene has no religious meaning or significance in such 
instances. I do not agree with the ruling, but I think the interpreta- 
tion of the use of the creche is probably correct. It is up to us to make 
sure that the cross, the fact and symbol of redemption, is not 
allowed to become nothing but an ornament. 

In a word then, the event on which we depend most for our 
salvation depends most on us for its interpretation. And this seems 
to have been in the mind of Jesus Christ, because of his refusal to 
interpret his death for us. No more profound paradox abides in our 
faith and practice than this one, which, in effect, has the Christ say 
to us, "I died for you. It is up to you to know what that means and 
tell it to the world." 

Have you told any one at all lately? 

On Not Loving Everyone 
All The Time 

January 31, 1982 
Matthew 5:43-48; Mark 7:24-30; Luke 14:25-2; 

I Corinthians 13 

Would Jesus ever have written the likes of I Corinthians 13? I 
doubt it. If he had been as closely involved with the Corinthian 
church as was the Apostle Paul, would he have written such a 
scripture? Probably not. This premise is based on the knowledge 
that Jesus shied away from using the word love in the form of a 
noun. On those rare occasions when he did, he nearly always 
connected the noun love with God or man; love does not appear in 
the abstract with Jesus but is usually related to an object. 

With no desire to disparage Paul's great hymn of love, it does 
need saying that he wrote of love in such a manner as to make it 
rather easy to lift a passage like I Corinthians 13 from its context. In 
context, and with just the right touch of satire — I had never 
thought of I Corinthians as having satire until now; think about 
that — it stands as a powerful appeal to the Corinthians to stop 
their fussing, put an end to their bickering, desist from contending 
for the superiority of this or that particular gift, and to discontinue 
the conflicts threatening to create a schism in the Corinthian 
church. But with words of strength and beauty, to be sure, Paul 
wrote of love in abstract and idealistic terms, wrote of love as a 
virtue to be achieved, as a garment to be put on, thus making love 
almost an end in itself rather than a means to an end. He left love 
without an object. As a consequence, one can become a loving 
person floating hither and yon with no particular place to light and 


38 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

no special one to love — to the end that love can mean little or 

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, 
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." This is true. But if I have 
love but do not know how or when to practice it with reference to 
ones who need it most — according to time and circumstance as 
well as other considerations — then all I have is love without ways 
for its effective and redemptive expression and use. Such a matter 
takes on heavy significance when it becomes apparent that the 
capacity for making commitment and choices and for the adminis- 
tration of justice requires selective love, which is to be directed to a 
particular object in specific times and circumstances. Loving every- 
one all the time under every circumstance and to the same degree 
and in the same way militates against the making of commitments 
and choices and the administration of justice. 

A study of scripture indicates that Jesus both talked and practiced 
a selective love rather than one universal and indiscriminate. He 
related such selective and particular love to matters of commitment 
and choices more than he did to the administration of justice. He 
did not seem to be occupied extraordinarily with the theories and 
practices of justice. This may have been so because of his knowl- 
edge that God caused rain to fall on both just and unjust, and, thus, 
the arbitrary will of God could not be submitted to some external 
norm of justice. Despite this fact, the manner in which Jesus loved 
does enable a person to make commitments and choices and to 
administer justice with greater effect than does the practice of 
loving everyone equally and at the same time and in all circum- 

Such specificity characterizes his answer to the question, Who is 
my neighbor? in the wake of the statement of the Great Command- 
ment, when he featured in his parable a ditched victim and a 
Samaritan with enough concern to interrupt his journey. Such 
specificity marks the command to love one's enemies and spells out 
that love with a turning the other cheek, giving an extra coat, or 
going the second mile. Here also in the scriptures is a kind of 
selective love which refuses to take bread from the table of the 
children of Israel and throw it to Gentile dogs. Can you imagine 
such hard words accompanying love? They do not give forth the 
sound of love, when first heard, until one recognizes that the love 

On Not Loving Everyone All The Time 39 

of Jesus for his own people, the Jews, was intense enough to cause 
him to use such stern metaphors in order to explain the priorities of 
his ministry. 

Even sterner and calling for a fiercer love are the words in Luke 
— Matthew is more temperate with his injunction against loving 
father and mother more than Jesus — which reads, "If anyone 
comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife 
and children and brother and sisters, yes, even his own life, he 
cannot be my disciple." Imagine what you would do if faced with 
the command to hate your children as the price of following after 
Jesus. In this respect, and with the important reminder that the 
word hate in this context should be translated as "love less," it is, 
nevertheless, ironically so that sometimes, in order to love this 
person or that in specific situations, one has to make choices for the 
one and against the other, which for the latter individual seems to 
be nothing short of hate. 

Let me again state the major premise before spelling out a few 
examples of its application. Loving everyone equally and in the 
same way in every time and situation ensues in loving no one in 
any particular and meaningful and redemptive way. Moreover, 
maintaining a stance of loving everyone all the time provides a 
means, whether intentionally or not, of evading the responsibility 
of loving a particular person or group because of a special situation 
or a serious need. In all probability Jesus would have commanded 
the Corinthians to love one another — and in specific ways — as a 
means of settling their differences. He would have hesitated to put 
love in the kind of abstract and romantic form that Paul did. It is the 
love of Jesus, articulated in his teachings, which is more likely to 
issue into commitments, to the making of choices, and to the ad- 
ministration of justice than is the kind of love which is outlined in I 
Corinthians 13. 

As a first example, let it be noted that Jesus minced no words in 
demanding selective love for him and his mission, if anyone in- 
tended to be his disciple. Two matters herein are of genuine impor- 
tance. We need to recall what has already been said: that hate in such 
context means to love less rather than to seek the destruction of the 
object hated. In the second instance, we need to recognize that Jesus 
was speaking of a love for the Father and the Son and the kingdom 
purpose, which was so pointed, so defined, so particular, and so 

40 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

intense that love for another to a lesser degree amounted to, or 
appeared to amount to, nothing short of hate. However, when Jesus 
used such illustrations, the stress lay with that to which we should 
give our fidelity rather than that upon which we ought to turn our 
backs. Love makes for commitment to the object of devotion rather 
than the rejection of that to which we do not give allegiance. 
Commitment to Christ rather than rejection of the world is always 
the most appropriate witness. 

What is true of the love that assured Christian discipleship is also 
true of love which assures the integrity and endurance of marriage. 
Again, although the emphasis should be on love rather than hate, I 
must say that my concern about the young who are marrying one 
another these days is that they do not appear to hate other options 
and persons sufficiently because of the love for one another. There- 
fore their love lacks sharpness and particularity and uniqueness. 
The vow to forsake all others is not repeated in word or practice 
with any degree of intensity. But take the time to consider what it 
means. Forsake means to renounce what was formerly cherished 
with no intention of recovering or resuming what has been left. 
Forsake means to withdraw, even to abandon. What needs under- 
standing is that forsaking does not make love necessary but love 
makes forsaking necessary. To love one man or one woman in a 
marriage covenant does not, and need not, mean that the two find 
it impossible to love anyone — that is not a good prospect for 
marriage — but that the two choose to love one another in such a 
definite way that others are necessarily set aside. Anyone who 
seeks to bring an affair to an end can certainly do so by applying 
selective love to the unfortunate situation. So many people wish to 
hang onto affairs under the guise of wanting to love everyone and 
therefore draw back from hurting the third party of a triangle. But 
the affair is over if selective love is used, where the devotion and 
commitment is made to the spouse at the expense of the other, even 
to the point of hurting the other. This same kind of selectivity 
applies to institutions and even to one's country. Commitment is 
not possible if we love all institutions all of the time to an equal 
degree. Sometimes we must love the church more than other insti- 
tutions, and sometimes we must pick which among institutions of 
like kind to give our primary loyalty and allegiance. If we fail to do 
this, we will be committed to none and, therefore, faithful to none. 

On Not Loving Everyone All The Time 41 

The principle of selective love is never more applicable than 
when it is brought to bear upon the administration of justice. 
Justice often demands loving the poor, or the weak, or the minority, 
or the set-apart, or the disfranchised at the expense of the well-to- 
do, the powerful, and the affluent. It is a distressing realization to 
understand that in order to administer justice to the underprivi- 
leged and the ostracized one must act in such a way as to appear to 
hate one's own kind. The poor, the disfranchised, and the under- 
privileged cannot usually achieve justice in their own behalf. Jus- 
tice has to be secured for them by the powerful and the affluent. 
Therefore, it nearly always entails one's turning against one's own 
kind in order to secure justice for the underdog. In days past, when 
the integration question was at its most critical point, it was not 
uncommon for those of us who advocated the cause of the blacks to 
be called a "nigger lover." What lay behind that epithet, however, 
was the certainty on the part of those who used it that the "nigger 
lover" was primarily a "honky hater." 

All of this is to say that loving everyone all the time in every 
circumstance and in the same way and to the same degree is, 
indeed, an appealing idealism. But even if it were possible, it is not 
to be recommended in the reality of our world and in the relation- 
ships called for in that world. If we are to have meaningful, effec- 
tive, and redemptive relationships both to persons and to things, 
we must know how to love selectively with particularity and 
uniqueness. When love does not ensue in commitment, relation- 
ships, and justice, it is little more than a nice word. 

The Word From Above and 
the Word From The Side 

May 13, 1984 
Amos 1:1-2; Hosea 1:1-3; Matthew 11:1-6, 25-29 

When was the last time that you thought of yourself as a proph- 
et? Never? If so, then I would suppose you find the question 
surprising, even a bit amusing. If you do find it surprising and 
amusing, why so? The role of prophet is not reserved for the 
professional clergy alone. Amos straightened that out long ago 
when he said to the high priest Amaziah, "I am not a prophet; I am 
not the son of a prophet. I belong to no prophets' organization. I am 
not a professional prophet. But the Lord took me from following 
my flock and told me to prophesy to his people Israel. Now, hear 
the word of the Lord." 

I do not know exactly why it is that the church, particularly the 
congregational, free church, can understand itself as a priesthood of 
believers. However much you practice it or not, most of you would 
say that you understand what it is in a church like this to be 
members of the priesthood of believers. What about a "prophet- 
hood of believers"? If there is nothing to prevent each of us from 
being a priest, there surely is nothing to prevent each of us from 
being a prophet. It is not reserved for the professional clergy. In a 
paraphrase of B.D. Napier, we may define a prophet as one who 
understands and interprets history in terms of divine concern, in 
terms of divine purpose, in terms of divine participation. In other 
words, a prophet is responsible to and for the word and the work of 
God in the world, being addressed by it and proclaiming it in all of 
one's relationships and affairs. 


44 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

The burden upon the prophet is to look at history while looking 
for and listening for the word of God, thereby to understand histo- 
ry to interpret history in terms of God's concerned and purposeful 
participation in our affairs. Now if that be true — that the responsi- 
bility which of course is laid upon us, is to make sure that we know 
how to find, to hear, to recognize the word of God as it addresses us 
in the rounds of our lives — how does one find, how does one hear, 
how does one recognize the word of God in the modern world? 

Some people would say that's not really a very important ques- 
tion. We have the Bible, and because we have the Bible, therefore 
we have the word of God, a word to be seen, a word to hear. But that 
is to oversimplify the matter. There were prophets before the Bible 
was written. And whatever the word of God had to say to them, 
however the word of God may have come to them, however they 
recognized the word of God, we must also recognize the word of 
God in somewhat the same way. This is one of the big arguments of 
our time. As we shrink back from the secular world which, more 
and more, hoots at the idea of God participating or speaking in any 
way in history, some of us rely upon this book and say that it is our 
only source, it is our only guide. Those who are known by the name 
"inerrantists" are people who, rather than being responsible to and 
for the Word of God, are actually responsible to and for the Bible. 
They understand history not in terms of divine concern, purpose, 
and participation; they understand history in terms of the Bible. 
They speak not the word of God but the Bible to the world. And 
when they do this, they give us dead religion. 

Now, this is not to say that there is nothing to be said for the 
Bible. This is not to say that the Bible is not a sure and authoritative 
word. But it is to say, first of all, that the Bible, like the church, in the 
words of Alan Richardson, derives it's authority from Christ, who 
did become the Word — the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us. 
Therefore this book derives its authority from that Word made 
flesh. If Christ is unique, the Bible is unique. If Christ is not unique, 
the Bible is not unique. If Christ is the Son of God, then the Bible is 
a one-of-a-kind book. If Christ is simply a good man, albeit a very 
good man, then the Bible is, by the same token, a good book, even 
perhaps a work of religious genius. But the authority of the book is 
in Christ. Now, whenever we hear the word of God, whenever we 
think we see the word of God in the world, we have to check it by 

The Word From Above and the Word From The Side 45 

this book. We have to check it by this book because the single most 
authoritative thing about the book is that it is a historical witness to 
Jesus Christ, a witness given by those who lived with him, who 
anticipated him, who came in the wake of his resurrection. So there 
is no word of God which can be called legitimate unless it is 
checked by the book. And yet the book, in and of itself, without the 
authority of Christ, without its witness to the Christ who lived, 
died, and was risen — then this book is only a dead word. The 
authority of the book is not based upon its content but upon its 
witness to Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Does that sound complicated? It is. If I've lost you, come back, 
because now I want to tell you about Hosea and Amos, and that will 
clear things up. Amos was a prophet to whom the word appeared to 
come from the side — not so much vertically, initially, as to one side 
or the other of his life in the world — and it seems to have been a 
word which he saw. He was a man who had the vision: the plumb 
line, the basket of summer fruit. He was also the man who saw the 
suffering of the people around him. Did you catch the distinction? 
It says, "The words which Amos saw concerning Israel," and then 
he spoke them: "The Lord roars in Zion; the top of Mount Carmel 
withers; the fields dry up." But it was Amos who talked about the 
rich, those who exploited the poor, who would buy the poor for a 
pair of sandals, who would buy the poor, who would get slaves by 
an exchange of silver, who dealt with false balances, who sold 
rotten wheat. It was Amos who saw all the sins of the world around 
him: dishonesty, corruption, exploitation, disfranchising of the 

The difference between Amos and simply some kind of seer was 
this: when he looked upon the suffering of the world around him, 
when he looked upon the inequities, the indignities, the evils of the 
time, he also looked for the word of God. He would spell out those 
terrible sins which people were heaping upon one another. He 
would talk of justice. But he always brought in that the Lord would 
not forget those deeds. 

Now if you are a person who looks with great grief and anger 
and indignation at the terrible sins of the world, those sins which 
one part of humanity heaps upon another part of humanity, you 
are well on the way to being a prophet. A prophet is a person who 
knows what it is to care when another person is being wrecked, 

46 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

broken, hurt by the unkindness and the unfairness and the malice 
of a fellow human being or a group of fellow human beings. Yes, I 
warn you: if you care, if you look, if you can see, you are on the way 
to being a prophet. But if in seeing all that, you do not also see the 
word of the Lord coming at you from the side, you don't turn out to 
be a prophet; you become a problem solver. You begin to solve 
things, and then they even elect you to office. We are in the midst of 
that now, are we not? One of the things I hear from all the candi- 
dates is that they know how to solve problems. How long, O Lord, 
shall we hope in that, only to be disappointed? 

The word from the side: it is there. God is with the downtrodden. 
Christ is in the midst of those who are poor, who are hurt, who are 
broken, who are lonely. The word is out there to the side. Look for it. 

There is another word: the word from above — a word that is like 
a bolt out of the blue. When Hosea heard the word of the Lord, he 
did not seem to be engaged in any great enterprise of Jewish or 
Christian social action. Apparently he was looking for a wife. Now 
the word from above seems to be — according to the scripture, the 
word is heard more than seen. It is a word that is more unexpected; 
it is a word for which one does not look so much as it simply comes: 
"When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, he said to Hosea . . ." 
(Can you imagine putting this kind of burden upon a prophet?) He 
said, "Now, Hosea, as one of my people — as a religious person in 
the community — I want you to go marry a harlot." That's not a 
very good start for a prophet. Prophets are known by the company 
they keep, and here God was sending Hosea, perhaps, down to the 
temple to pick up one of the temple prostitutes and marry her. And 
he said, "It is because Israel has been a harlot to me, has been 
unfaithful. It is because of that that I want you to marry Gomer. If 
you have children, we'll call the children Not Pitied, Not My Peo- 
ple, Nobody. But you see, I want you to marry this harlot, and 
forgive her when she proves to be unfaithful. Go back down there 
and get her and bring her home and discipline her, but be faithful 
to her and say that she is still your wife. By doing that as a prophet, I 
will be saying to my people, "I forgive you as well." 

Isn't that a strange word? Do you reckon anybody could get by 
with that today? You see, Hosea was called about the way Jeremiah 
was called: he wasn't too much involved. Jeremiah was called be- 
fore he left his mother's womb, and Hosea hadn't shown himself to 

The Word From Above and the Word From The Side 47 

be any great social-action person. He hadn't shown any tremen- 
dous promise. He was just looking for a wife and wound up with a 
prostitute — as a prophecy. 

It is easier to see the word from the side than it is to hear the word 
from above. It is easier to get started as a prophet when you are out 
there really putting your fingers into the mire of human despair 
and human degradation and hoping to dig up not only a word of 
your own concern but a word of the Lord that you can pick up and 
look at and say to the world, "Here it is." It is not that easy always, 
with the Word from above. Amos was able to uncover the word of 
God as divine concern; Hosea had to deal with the word of God as 
divine purpose. The purpose of God is usually more hidden in the 
world than is the concern of God. Jesus — did he not say in that 
parable about the last, "Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least 
of these, my people, my brethren — the sick, the hungry, the 
broken, the imprisoned — as you have done it unto the least of 
these, you have done it also unto me." That's more easily seen than 
a prophet marrying a prostitute in order to reveal the purpose of 
God. It is because of this that so often we say the only prophecy 
there is comes from the side; that's what we can see; that's what we 
can get our teeth in, and that's what we've got to bank on. 

Jesus said the prophet must do both. When John the Baptist was 
languishing in prison and wondering whether or not Jesus was the 
one who had been sent — the Messiah, the Christ whom he had 
prophesied about — he sent disciples and said, "Tell us. Are you the 
one? Are you the real article?" Jesus said to those disciples, "You go 
back and tell John what you've seen." What had they seen? The 
deaf hear, the lame walk, the sick are healed, the dead are raised. But 
he also said, "Go back and tell John what you've heard." What did 
they hear? That the gospel, the good news, was being preached to 
the poor. Wasn't that strange? Why didn't Jesus say, "The lame walk, 
the lepers are healed, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are 
raised, and the poor are on social security?" 

Jesus then explained it: "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and 
earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and under- 
standing and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy 
gracious will." "No one comes to the Father but by me." The Son 
understands the Father; the Father understands the Son. Here 
Christ was saying, "The divine purpose is hidden in me." Then he 

48 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

said to those dispossessed Jews, in a sense, "Come to me, all who 
labor and are heavy laden (with the yoke of the law), and I will give 
you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle 
and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my 
yoke is easy, and my burden is light." That was the gospel that he 
preached to the poor. 

I drove back through southeastern Kentucky last Tuesday, 
through the worst floods that that comparatively poor section of 
the state of Kentucky has suffered in the last fifty years. I saw 
trailers and saw houses floating down small streams, the water 
lapping up on the shoulders of the road. And I felt great despair 
because it was impressed upon me once again that the poor are not 
only the chief victims of human manipulation; the poor are the 
chief victims of natural disaster. The poor are the chief victims of 
what we call the acts of God. I saw them standing on their porches 
with rowboats and motorboats going over to pick them up, their 
total possessions clasped in their two arms. I saw them standing by 
the side of the road, no umbrellas, no raincoats — there with the 
rain pelting down, shivering against a cool spring day, a battered 
suitcase at their feet, waiting for the state patrol or the National 
Guard or the Red Cross to come and pick them up and find them a 
place to stay. 

The poor are the victims of the acts of God. And the Amos in me 
wanted to cry out and say, "Why is it always like this?" I thought I 
could see God's word in looking from one side of the road to the 
other, and to say that is wrong and that is damnable and that there 
must be an end to it. But as I drove along very slowly, sometimes 
with a sheet of water already on the road, and I looked into their 
faces, lined with worry but also creased with good humor — and 
because I know those mountain people, because I've preached in 
their midst, because my mother was one of them, I knew that if I 
stopped and said, "How do you interpret this part of your history?" 
they would say, "It's God's will." Unless some fancy theologian gets 
hold of them, that's where they'll get their comfort: "It's God's will." 
Mysterious. But those people could see, as they have seen through- 
out the misery of Appalachia — those people could understand 
themselves in a strange and paradoxical way as agents of the pur- 
pose of God. That also is prophecy. That also is a prophet's word. 

Job Backs Down 

July, 1968 
Job 13:13-19, 40:3-5, 42:1-6 

"If he slays me, I will have no hope, but I will argue the Tightness 
of my ways to his face/That was the way Job felt about his situa- 
tion, and it reveals that he was more a stubborn than a patient man. 
He did not do what he said he was going to do despite his stubborn- 
ness. He kept daring God to answer his questions, to meet him like 
a man, I suppose, rather than some lofty divinity. In his own good 
time, God called his bluff and the great face-to-face encounter came 
to pass. But Job did not follow through. He hedged a bit at the 
beginning and explained that he had spoken once about his prob- 
lems and God's unfairness, in fact, he had mentioned it twice and 
that was enough. He had nothing more to say. But finally we hear 
our boil-burdened hero exclaiming: "I have uttered what I did not 
understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . 
I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see 
thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes." 

If you have ever been hit by suffering and affliction, with bad 
luck and a torturous streak of misfortune which you did not think 
you deserved, if like Job, you decided that God was a poor excuse 
for divinity to have let all this happen to you, then Job is a good 
story for you to read and try to understand. 

There are some striking parallels between this story of Job and 
what seems to be the history of modern man. Job then becomes 
something more than a folk hero of Judaism. He has in his story 
some of the antecedents for modern secular humanity. Let us look 
at some of the parallels which point up the similarities between Job 
and us. 


50 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

1. Job was a troubled man in a troubled world. The social life of 
Israel had come to the crossroads where there was no longer a pat 
and neat answer for human suffering. Some that were good suf- 
fered. Some that were not so good escaped suffering. Secular man 
now is a troubled man in a troubled world, and there seems to be no 
logical explanation for it all. 

2. Job stubbornly declared that the trouble did not come because 
of his sin. He openly declared that God was arbitrarily unjust and 
unfair. Modern secular man protests a similar innocence. He is not 
so quick to blame God because he no longer takes God that serious- 
ly. We shall deal with this dissimilarity later on. For now, it is 
enough to establish modern man's innocence, as was the case for 

3. Job's evangelistic friends pounced on the plight of the hero and 
used his unfortunate condition to expound their favorite theologi- 
cal doctrines. Job pays no more attention to them than intelligent 
secular man pays to Billy Graham, who uses the present condition 
to advance his affinity for the doctrine of the second coming of 

4. At the very center of Job's distress, he and his friends engaged 
in an academic discussion about God and man. Even now, God is 
very much on the lips of modern man, but he is not called for in the 
stresses and strains of living. 

5. Job's God was silent. He did not readily appear on the scene of 
Job's vast dissatisfaction. He did not intrude himself into the situa- 
tion. Job continued to suffer with his deprivation and his boils, and 
God seemed very far away. God is now silent. He is obscure, or even 
hidden, in the processes of history. His absence suggests to some 
men that the world he has made has outgrown him and that its 
perplexities are much too tough for him. Some people suggest that 
he is dead and that his followers are trying to keep his passing a 
secret as if he were another Father Divine or some immortal Com- 
munist leader. 

Here are the parallels. The end of secular man's narrative is not 
yet apparent. We are afraid that it will not be the happy ending that 
characterizes the end of the story of Job. It is time to see how that 
one turned out. 

In the case of Job, the silence of God came to an end. It is here that 
Job's similarity with modern secular man ceases. Like Jeremiah, Job 

Job Backs Down 51 

gave a curious testimony to a God that he thought was crooked, 
deceitful and unfair. By testimony I mean that Job assumed the 
existence of God no matter what. He dared God to meet with him 
and discuss with him God's own arbitrary injustice. He was willing 
to meet God like a prince, and he seemed to assume that God would 
come off second-best in any such encounter, for God would meet a 
righteous man, whom he had no right to treat so rudely. Job was 
prepared to stack the forces of his own integrity over against the 
supposed holiness of God. It was then he got a response — but not 
the kind he had bargained for and not the kind he wanted. 

God called Job's bluff. But at least the hero took his chances. In 
our sophisticated stance, our certainty about what is ethical and 
right, our preconditions as to who and what God has to be, we 
prohibit an authentic experience with God. We militate against a 
possible relationship. We know the same vivid suffering that Job 
did. For us this means that there is no God or that he is somehow 
laid up and out of commission. For Job this meant that God existed 
in some unfair kind of judgment. For us this means the nonexis- 
tence of God. 

God takes seriously those who accuse him of being the wrong 
kind of God, because he knows that this means that men take his 
existence seriously. We have missed this turn at this precise junc- 
ture. We have presumed that unless God fits the 1968 models of 
divinity he does not exist at all. We have written God off because he 
does not fit what we mean by love, justice, relevance, et al. 

We have not dared to take what Job took. We, therefore, either 
have to decide that there is no God or that there is no such thing as 
justice or love. Or if we do decide that the latter is still operative, we 
have to assume that this is a human quality and that we do not love 
because God first loved us. 

The only other choice is the Joban choice. That is to dare to say 
that God is not fair. That is to say, with Jeremiah, that he, like a 
deceitful brook giving promise of living water, is always nothing 
more than a dusty and dried up spring when one comes to drink. If 
a man believes in God's existence and God's rule over the whole of 
life, and if he looks full into the face of the mystery of evil, he will 
almost be forced to blame God rather than himself for these condi- 
tions. It would take too much of an outsized ego to believe that our 
sin were great enough to explain the whole human misery as it 
now stands. 

52 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

It is the time now for man to call God to account. I do not mean in 
order to fulfill the plot of some historical drama. I mean that this is 
really the essential question. If God is good, why our suffering and 
why our evil world? Why do good men who take the part of the 
downtrodden wind up prone before the assassin's bullet? Why do 
good and concerned parents find children going wrong? Why do 
the better men for political position somehow fail to win the sup- 
port of their parties? How can the gun lobby make its point so 
successfully? Why can we not find our way out of cruel war? How 
can the dropouts love everybody other than those who have loved 
them, unwisely perhaps, but with no less concern? And why do the 
wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? 

If we do not want to go the way of the secular; if we are unwilling 
to write God off; if we still cling to some stubborn belief, although 
the evidence is very much against us, that there is a God; if we 
honestly look at ourselves and know that we are trying to achieve 
some semblance of good, that we are not brazenly sinful, that we do 
not applaud the evils of our society; if we are of this kind, then we 
have to ask God some questions. We are in the same state that Job is. 
We cannot think anything other than that God has lost his sense of 
justice and fairness. 

If this should get a rise out of God and he should answer us — or 
rather ask questions of us as he did in the case of Job — we probably 
will not be very happy about this turn of events. Job got no answer 
about his own suffering. In this respect God was extraordinarily 
gracious. After all, there are not many possible answers — that is, if 
suffering and sin have a link. Either man is no good or God is no 
good — that is, if one thinks there is still a God. In either case, man 
would be the loser. There really is no response to the problem of 
suffering. When an evil man suffers there is no question. When a 
good man suffers there is no answer. 

Neither is it likely that God will try to prove that he is alive and 
good any more than was the case with Job. God has not bothered to 
make his modern morticians sound outlandish. Nor has God made 
any overt reference to his own sincerity by speaking in husky 
tones, or a whisper, or declaring outright how sincere he is. 

If and when he answers us, it will probably be as he answered 
Job: with questions that point to his power over all things. The poet 

Job Backs Down 53 

McLeish has argued that Job asked God for a show of justice, and all 
Job received was a show of divine muscles. McLeish does not like it 
this way. I cannot agree with him. 

Does man need any other evidence, when the story of his life is 
so completely a mystery? Life is of such a style and bent these days 
that the question is not one of God's goodness but of power. No 
matter what he may think and how he may feel about the complex- 
ities of life, if he is powerless to do anything about it, then the 
question of his goodness is academic. Perhaps Job never asked the 
questions that God answered by his own set of questions, but what 
he answered is the basic question nevertheless. For the thing that 
most of us want to know, if we think of God at all, is, what can he do 
about the world once he makes up his mind what he wants to do 
about it? 

It is perfectly obvious that we will want a new set of illustrations. 
God is revealed to Job, through the confrontation, as the almighty 
God of creation. We need to see him as the almighty God of deliver- 
ance. We are no longer concerned with who made the whale. We are 
more like Jonah. We would like to know how to get out of its belly 
and out of the powers of this world which threaten to undo us. Can 
God do anything about war, race, poverty . . .? You know the list, 
and you will surely want to add some personal touches to it. 

By raising the issue, God revealed to Job the essential question. It 
is the question of his power. That is still the question, and we 
cannot know the answer except by faith. We do not know the 
power of God until we throw ourselves at his mercy and see wheth- 
er or not he is able to deliver us. 

There is a finale to this story of Job that is so often overlooked, to 
man's detriment. We are satisfied usually to find that Job repented 
and despised himself and that then God turned things around and 
gave Job back his friends and his wealth and his prestige. 

Tucked away in these final sentences, may be the treasure of the 
entire narrative. After God refused to bow down to Job's petty 
argument, after he overwhelmed our hero with his display of pow- 
er, after the hero had been reduced to dust and ashes, then God 
appoints Job, the dust and ashes man, to be the intercessor for his 
wise friends who had done all that preaching to him when he was 
down. And the point was that God would not deal with them justly 

54 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

— although Job was crying for justice — because if he dealt with 
them justly they would have been in great trouble. God, instead, 
uses the man who had cried the loudest and longest for justice as 
the agent of his mercy for those who had used Job's sores for their 
own theological advantage. Job had to see firsthand that if God 
dealt justly with all men, then the complexity of good and evil in 
life would be too much for us. Justice for Job would have meant the 
end of his friends if God were to be consistently just with all men. 
God has power to show mercy and compassion to those whom He 
chooses to show mercy and compassion. If God must be just accord- 
ing to our standards, then he must be merciful according to our 
standards, and that would prohibit many of our fellows from re- 
ceiving both justice and mercy. 

What is the final plank in the story of Job? Namely, that this man 
who cried so much for justice became an agent of mercy for others 
who did not, in that moment, dare to cry for justice. And that, in 
turn, must surely have revealed to Job that all of us cannot always 
rely on justice. We are dependent upon God's power also to be 
merciful when he chooses to be so. 

To Act is to Compromise 

May 6, 1984 
Genesis 9:20-28; Romans 7:13-20, 8:28-30 

Noah, famed boat builder and ship captain, followed another 
line of work after the flood. Apparently for the last three hundred 
and fifty years of his life, he was a grower of crops and of fruit, a 
tiller of the ground. Perhaps he had never heard about Cain's trou- 
bles as a farmer, or if he had heard about that, he may have forgot- 
ten the story. Or it could be that after being the great flood's hero, he 
decided that God would have greater regard for his offering of the 
best of the fruit of the land than had been the case with Cain. 

In any event, this epic hero one day deciding to relax after his 
labor, drank of the liquid treasure of the fruit and became intoxicat- 
ed. The story says that naked he lay in the tent, in a drunken stupor. 
Nakedness before the Fall, in the book of Genesis — in the Garden 
of Eden — was nothing of which to be ashamed. But after the 
disobedience of Adam and Eve, nakedness was something of which 
to be ashamed. Adam and Eve were ashamed of their nakedness 
after their disobedience. Throughout the scripture, particularly the 
Old Testament, nakedness is a symbol for unrighteousness, which 
explains the frequent phrase that people desire to be clothed in 
righteousness. So, naked he lay in his tent, an old man, a father, in a 
drunken stupor. 

When Ham walked in, apparently uninvited and unannounced, 
he saw his father 's nakedness, and he reacted morally. The morals 
of Ham went like this: You call a spade a spade. Even if it is your 
father who is in a state of embarrassment, you do not spare your 
father; you do not give your father any particular consideration; 
you tell the story. You see, for some reason there is a moral aspect in 


56 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

the whole ethical system whereby we say that anybody whose sin 
is already exposed should be further exposed. Let it all hang out. 
And that's what Ham did. Helping his father not at all and acting 
on principle and morality, he went to tell the older brothers "Our 
father is dead drunk and in a stage of great embarrassment." 

Now Shem and Japheth also reacted morally but their morality 
was of a different kind. They said they could not let their father 
remain exposed in his unrighteous state before the world, and so 
they decided that they would cover Dad's nakedness. You might say 
that they were merciful; their morality had as much grace in it as it 
did justice. But I would remind you that the way they pulled this off 
was ridiculously funny. They backed into the tent with averted 
eyes; they had some kinds of garment draped across the back of 
their shoulders. I guess they knew the measurement of the tent 
before they went in, because, walking backward and counting off 
the steps, let us presume, they got to the place where they thought 
maybe their father was lying in his naked and unrighteous state, 
and they dropped the garment on him and covered his nakedness 
and covered his unrighteousness. But, oh my, there wasn't a bit of 
dirt on them; they were as innocent as they had ever been. The 
forgiveness cost little or nothing because they had no idea what 
they were forgiving; they never saw it. 

Now, when Noah came to, he also reacted morally: Eye for eye, 
tooth for tooth, tit for tat. My younger son disgraced me; my 
younger son did not have mercy upon me. My younger son did not 
treat me with any favor, and therefore cursed be my son and his 
offspring. I disinherit him, and I hope to make his children slaves 
of their cousins. So goes the story of Noah and his sons — this great 
hero having become a drunk, maybe for the only time in his life. 

To that incident there were three moral reactions: the morality of 
exposure — do not hide sin (that usually belongs, I think, to the 
fundamentalists); the morality of ignorant mercy — if you can be 
gracious without dirtying your own hands, do so; and the morality 
of rough and ready justice — giving back what one receives. In each 
of these cases I think we can say that Noah and his sons were 
operating upon a kind of pure principle. They had a certain idea of 
what was moral and acted on that and nothing else, and therefore 
their actions in each case left much to be desired. 

To Act is to Compromise 57 

I hear people say occasionally that they act on pure principle. 
The trouble with acting on pure principle is that the action is 
always so narrow, so precise, so single-shot in its effect that it misses 
the wider picture. I have a colleague who has boasted through the 
years that he never lets friends come between his convictions and 
himself. He's a man of pure principle. And as I've known him 
through these years, I hope it not unkind to say that I can count his 
principles on one hand and I don't need even the first finger to 
count his friends. Almost always, to act effectively, relevantly is to 
compromise. Any action taken on pure, unadulterated principle 
will make nothing greater than a pinprick in the fabric of life. To act 
is to compromise. 

Now of course, there are some who say, "My principles are so 
important to me that I cannot in any way compromise them." And 
these are the people who do nothing, and their name is legion. The 
world is filled with people who are paralyzed because they do not 
want to compromise their convictions. They are something like 
Shem and Japheth, who really could not deal with the situation of 
their drunken old father because they did not want to get tainted. 

So, if to act is to compromise, does that mean that we are able, 
therefore, in life to compromise with no problem whatsoever? Not 
at all. There are at least two great dangers having to do with com- 
promise against which we must always be alert, against which we 
must always guard. First of all, the world is so complex that when- 
ever we begin to compromise principles, we are likely to confuse 
those principles to such a degree as to lose sight of them. Let me 
point out, by way of illustration, what may seem a fairly harmless 
example — that of getting married. I am willing to suggest that in 
the act of getting married we compromise many of the principles 
which make for peace in the world. Eric Fromm, for example, has 
come up in one of his books with that intriguing phrase called 
"universal narcissism." Fromm wants us to learn how to love all of 
humanity the way we love ourselves, extending this narcissism 
beyond the individual, beyond the group, beyond the nation to all 
humanity. He even calls for a "Holiday of Man" as the highest 
holiday of the year — universal narcissism. Eric Fromm was con- 
vinced that it is only possible for a man or a woman to be human 
"only in a climate in which he (or she) can expect that he and his 

58 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

children will live to see the next year, and many more years to 

Now do you see how that principle of narcissism, universally 
applied, would seem to be the ground of peace — nations and 
groups are transcended by a love for all humankind. I went to a 
wedding yesterday and it just shot all of that principle to pieces. 
These people stood up there and gave themselves to one another 
and said, "We're going to forsake everybody else, we are going to 
abandon everybody else, and give ourselves only one to the other." 
Marriage is a form of hate for the whole wide world. Vows? Have 
you ever stopped to think how powerful and ominous a word that 
is — that "I shall forsake all others?" Obviously, that has sexual 
relevance and application most of all, but it also includes the whole 
realm of our life together as a family. 

Where does nationalism come from? Nationalism does not come 
altogether from love of country. Nationalism is based a great deal 
upon the family. When the man and the woman have their chil- 
dren, while they may not want their children to grow up in an 
armed camp, an armed fortress, they do want a nation strong 
enough to protect their children against the enemy, whether real or 
imagined. Whenever we get married, whenever we raise a family, 
we compromise the principle of peace and worldwide love. 

So did Jesus. Jesus said, "To follow me, you will have to leave 
father, mother." He knew that if the family ever became entrenched 
and if people could not break from the family, the mission of the 
Lord Jesus Christ in the world was doomed. He even intimated that 
the reason you can have peace in heaven is that you don't get 
married in heaven. You know those people wanted to know about 
the woman who was widowed successively after having married 
seven brothers; they asked to whom she would belong in heaven. 
Jesus said you aren't given in marriage nor received in marriage in 
the resurrection. I suppose that was not only a guard against inter- 
nal domestic strife, but think of what a donnybrook it could have 
been if the seven brothers had been arguing about that one woman 
there in the hereafter. So you see, somehow the principles of peace 
get lost in all that, in a harmless, nice thing like getting married and 
having children. 

The other danger of compromise is that as we begin to use means 

To Act is to Compromise 59 

to reach ends, there is always the danger, because we know we are 
compromising, that we shall moralize on those means and those 
methods to such an extent as to replace the original principle. I 
think the best example of that also has to do with peace. The 
principle of peace, the moral and ethical commitment to peace — 
these have been replaced by moral and ethical commitments to the 
nuclear argument. We do more moralizing today about nuclear 
deterrence, building up so that war is unthinkable, or about nucle- 
ar build-down, or freeze, or disarmament, so that you can't have 
that kind of war. Now, I come down ever so lightly on the side of the 
nuclear build-down people. I think that methodology, that compro- 
mise, is more moral because it holds possibilities for killing fewer 
people. But I come down lightly on that because I cannot get as 
moral about the matter as some other people. The moralizing on 
means — the moralizing about methods until the ultimate princi- 
ple is replaced or substituted for, that seems to me to be a real 
danger in compromise. And yet, compromise we must. So where 
does that leave us? 

If you anticipate that at the end of this sermon I am going to 
engage in "God-talk," you are as right as rain, because now I am 
going to engage in "God-talk." If to act is to compromise, if compro- 
mise is almost inevitable if you do anything or if you do anything 
that has some kind of relevant and widespread consequences — if 
compromise of principle is apparently not only necessary but in- 
evitable — then I would suggest that we need to learn how to 
compromise within the context of grace. How agonizing is our 
attempt to compromise without destroying the principle or with- 
out losing sight of the principle. How utterly painful to find our- 
selves using this means or that method and trying to give it some 
moral, ethical respectability! I am suggesting that in the matter of 
"God-talk" we relax about our compromise — maybe even enjoy it 
— and understand the freedom that we have in God's grace. 

Paul made a confession about himself. He said, "I do not under- 
stand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very 
thing I hate." Even Paul tried to get out of it a little bit by saying, "It 
is sin in me that does this." When he admitted, "I do not do what I 
want to do," Paul was saying, "There is some judgment upon me; 
there is a principle, a law, that convicts me." The reason that we 

60 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

cannot do that law, the reason that we cannot do that principle is 
that we always have to compromise. Paul put it in the starkest 
terms: He said, "Had it not been for the law, I would never have 
known what it was to covet. But now that I know what it is to covet, 
I enjoy coveting and I am more susceptible to coveting than ever. 
That's what the law has done to me." We are not alien to that kind of 
experience, where we starkly disobey the principle, but most of the 
time we just compromise. 

How does grace have to do with compromise? Paul brought this 
dilemma to bear. He asked the question finally, "Who shall deliver 
this miserable body of death that I am? Who shall deliver me from 
it, oh, wretched man that I am? Thanks be to Christ." Then in the 
very next chapter he says to these same Romans, "God is at work in 
everything." Most of the time we are just thinking about tragedy 
and death and sickness and destruction. But "God is at work in 
everything for those who love him and are called according to his 
purpose." This means that in the context of grace, if you love God, if 
you are on a mission of God, you can almost do that old promise of 
ancient times: you can love God and do what you please. 

We live in grace; we need not be paralyzed for fear of compromis- 
ing the principle, because if we live in grace, we live in forgiveness 
for our imperfection and for our imperfect ways. If we live in grace 
and we lose sight of the principle because we become so confused, 
it is by God's mercy that we may see a better way. And if we live in 
grace, we do not have to moralize on our means to make them 
perfect. Reinhold Niebuhr has warned us many times: in a finite 
world and a finite condition, do not believe that you are capable of 
envisioning the perfect ideal. And even more, do not assume that 
in a fallen, finite way you have the means by which to reach the 
perfect ideal. Niebuhr says that if we start out like that, sooner or 
later we wind up doing one of three things: we go crazy; or we fake 
it and say we have reached the ideal (they have bumper stickers, 
you know: I've found it); or we confess. Confession is the best. 

In the last analysis, when we know that God works in every- 
thing for good to his people, with those who love him and are in his 
mission, on his mission, we do not have to worry about corrupting 
our principles because they were corrupt to begin with. Where did 
we ever get the idea that we know the perfect answer to anything? 

To Act is to Compromise 61 

So, it is when we learn that the will of God and our ideal are not 
necessarily one and the same that we are set free. Our freedom is 
not of compromise but of grace, to do in God's grace what one 
understands to be God's purpose. If we do that, we need not worry, 
in the last analysis, about principle or compromise; but, this is true 
only in the last analysis. Grace and peace be yours. Amen. 

Evangelism at the Exits 

October 24, 1982 
I Kings 17:9-19; John 21:15-19 

Where do we come in? With respect to a particular function in 
the redemptive enterprise of God, what do you think is, or should 
be, our specific role both as a church and as individual Christians? I 
believe that we come in at the place where many people are going 
out, going out, that is, from the church and perhaps even the 
kingdom of God. I venture the possibility that we have been ap- 
pointed by God to practice evangelism at the exits, exercising a 
backdoor evangelism in order to intercept those people who are 
departing from the church and its mission. 

I say so because, in the first place, the fact that almost as many 
people are leaving the church as are entering it legitimates evangel- 
ism at the exits. In the second place, my experience as the minister 
of this church has convinced me that backdoor evangelism is our 
particular calling. If the record is at all indicative, except for the 
children of families already belonging to this church, we have not 
mastered the art of primary evangelism, the winning of initial 
converts from unbelief into belief. While it is true that few children 
have grown up in this church without being baptized into Christ, 
we have not baptized many adults on a confession of faith. And we 
have properly refused to baptize adults from other churches, deem- 
ing this to be a practice which inevitably stigmatizes the churches 
of other denominations. 

What we have accomplished, I hope according to God's will, is 
bringing a good number of disillusioned Christians to a renewal of 
faith and participation in the life and mission of the church. Such a 
ministry does not attract great notice and lacks the ingredients of 


64 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

the spectacular, but I believe that it is within the will of God. And if 
this is the case, our responsibility is to affirm our evangelism at the 
exits and to become the best backdoor evangelists that we can 
possibly be. 

Although never given the name as such, backdoor evangelism 
occupies a prominent place in the scriptures. There must have been 
on the bulletin boards of faith, in biblical times, a sign containing 
the words of Jesus given to the apostles when sending them out 
upon their mission- "He that endures to the end will be saved." 
Jesus seems to have placed great store in those who endured. John's 
gospel tells us of the occasion, on which many of the disciples had 
departed unable to stand the hard sayings of Jesus, when he asked 
of the remainder, the twelve, "Will you also go away?" That was one 
of Christ's most poignant questions. Concern for those once within 
the fold or the family is also a dominant note in the Bible, a note 
that is manifest in the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal 
son. Other examples are at hand, but I choose to dwell at greater 
length on the stories of Elijah and of Simon Peter. 

Our Old Testament lesson describes Elijah at a time when he was 
on the way out from his mission. Running for his life from the 
wrath of Jezebel, the prophet was holed up in a cave when the Lord 
found him. And when the Lord asked him why he was there, Elijah 
replied, "I have been very jealous for the Lord," but then he added, 
"I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away." Elijah 
gave voice to two concerns. He was afraid that Jezebel was going to 
do away with him. And he believed that he was the only person 
who had remained faithful to God. That simply was not fair in the 
eyes of the beleaguered prophet. 

We encounter hardly any these days who have reason to be afraid 
for their lives because of their religion. But we do come across a 
considerable number of people who are at the point of leaving faith 
and the church because they see themselves as the only ones who 
are doing anything and what they do is not appreciated. We can 
surely find some clues for our own evangelism at the exits in the 
manner with which God dealt with Elijah. 

First of all, rather than giving him less to do, God appointed 
Elijah to do more. But he gave him something more than mere busy 
work. This cringing prophet, in his cave, was ordered to go and 

Evangelism at the Exits 65 

anoint the new king of Syria and also to anoint the new king of 
Israel. Even as he was running for his life from the wife of Israel's 
present king, God told the prophet to anoint the new king-to-be. 
Successful backdoor evangelism does not contain the promise that 
if one will only stay with the faith and the mission, one will not 
have anything else to do. 

God also told Elijah, usually a loner by nature — remember him 
sparking wet wood on the mountain as he stood alone against all 
those prophets of Baal — that if he would take the trouble to look, 
he would find seven thousand people in Israel who had never 
bowed their knees to Baal even a sixteenth of an inch more than 
Elijah had himself. 

But the command which stands out most prominently was that 
Elijah was to anoint Elisha to be a prophet in his place. So the words 
of the Lord to Elijah went something like this: Keep on working; 
you are not alone; appoint someone to take your place. So we must 
say to those who feel that they are doing it all and no one else is 
helping: keep on working, God will always have people for his 
mission, and when the time comes there will be someone to take 
your place. 

Whereas Elijah seems to have been on his way out because of a 
general disgruntlement, Simon Peter — impatient and impulsive 
character as he was — decided to take leave as a result of his 
disillusionment. Christ's mistake in going to Jerusalem, just as Peter 
had warned, seemed now to have been confirmed. It was true that 
the resurrection had changed the darkness into light and the fol- 
lowing of Jesus had taken on renewed hope. But the other accounts 
tell of those empty spaces, those times of waiting, between and 
after the great events of resurrection appearances. Peter was not 
one to wait, and never had been. Although Peter had been in the 
upper room when Christ came with the gift of the Spirit, and in all 
probability heard the confession of Thomas (after his period of 
doubt), the ingrained restlessness within Simon began to reassert 
itself. So it was that he persuaded his old fishing cronies, James and 
John, along with Nathaniel, and would you believe it, Thomas, 
thereby giving substance to the words of Jesus, "Have you believed 
because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen 
and yet have believed" — in any event, Peter persuaded the lot of 

66 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

them to go back to Galilee's water and start again fishing for fish. So 
it was that Simon Peter was making his way to the exits. 

But he was interdicted by the Lord. Once more, just as on that 
other time, they caught nothing until Jesus, at day break, told them 
where to cast their nets. This time there was no argument; they did 
as they were instructed, and once again, the catch was more than 
they could handle. 

Then the story changes, and the change is great indeed. There 
was no second call to follow and become fishers of men. Instead 
they had breakfast on a catch of one hundred and fifty-three fish. 
After breakfast, Jesus asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" 
"You know I love you," Peter answered three times. And the Lord 
replied three times in turn, "Feed my sheep." Do you get it? No 
longer was Peter being asked to be a fisherman, catching people in 
the nets of primary evangelism. The metaphor was abruptly 
changed. Peter was now to be a shepherd of the sheep — in the fold, 
one who tended, fed, nurtured, watched over the flock. The Lord 
put Peter at the backdoor of the church, there to do his evangelism 
at the exits, so that the sheep would neither stray nor starve. Had 
not Jesus, in this same gospel, said of himself, "I am the good 

May we not be instructed in a similar vein? May it not be that the 
proof of our love of the Lord can be manifested in the nurturing of 
the people of God? And is it not possible for us to point out to the 
disillusioned, to those disappointed in faith, to those who are about 
to forego the whole mission because of their disappointment that 
nothing is happening — is it not right for us to say to them as they 
near the back door, "Do not leave. It is true that waiting is not the 
most exciting thing in the world. We understand how you want to 
be excited and titillated by an endless round of activities, by visible 
signs of success, by being assured always that the Lord is present. 
But we cannot assure you of this. It is not ours to provide. However, 
you have been around for a while. You have seen the ebb and flow, 
the high and low tides of the faith, and you have lived through 
them before. Turn around. There are some lambs back inside. There 
are some sheep. They need your tending and your care. They need 
to be nurtured and fed by you. And perhaps in so doing, you will be 
renewed within yourself." How did Jesus say this to Peter? In some 

Evangelism at the Exits 67 

such words as these: "When you were young, you girded yourself 
and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will 
stretch out your hands, another will gird you and carry you where 
you do not wish to go." Then he said, "Follow me." 

This is surely, among other things perhaps, a word that we may 
use to those who have heard too often how the church needs 
constantly to catch the young in its nets. And when the elders hear 
these words and no more, they may be disillusioned, wondering if 
there is anything left for them in the church, as they begin to make 
their way to exits. Wait a minute, old folks. I am one of you, and I 
know that there are little lambs to be fed and young sheep to be led, 
and others for whom to care and to tend. And the very fact that 
someone has some age on us means that we know that we cannot 
simply go anywhere we wish. There is not enough time for that. So 
let us stay and do what Christ has appointed for us. 

Elijah and Simon Peter do not make up the entire story. People 
leave the church these days for every reason under the sun. Let us 
begin with students, away from the restraints of home, trying to 
become independent and thinking that this means the discard of all 
they have experienced before. Some of them will claim a newfound 
sophistication, the need to think for themselves. But, at least, some- 
one needs to take a towel to the back of the ears of some. At best, 
someone needs to know that adolescent rebellion is against father 
and mother — thus an adolescent rebellion against God the Father 
and the church, bride of Christ and mother of his people. Some will 
say that the church lacks warmth; they need a warm embrace. 
Others will say that science has convinced them that religion is 
superstition; they need to be asked what science is doing about the 
threat of nuclear war. Some will say that power is in politics and 
they need something stronger than the church to achieve social 
righteousness; they need to be reminded that politicizing the gos- 
pel implies that social righteousness may be determined by popu- 
lar vote. Then the sinner, so sure that one has broken the rules of 
righteousness to the degree of being irrecoverable, can be found 
slipping out and needs to hear that there is no sin which can defy 
the powerful law, the cross. Others will be angry, sad, or lonely, but 
in whatever event they must not slip away without redemptive 
notice and concern. 

68 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Therefore, wait just a minute, woman, man, adolescent, young- 
ster. Where do you think you are going? Do you intend to spend the 
rest of your lives in a cave polishing your prejudices and fondling 
your fears? We are among that seven thousand who have not 
bowed to any false God, who have not made our idols from the stuff 
of Washington and Wall Street, and we do not intend to. Endure 
with us to the end. 

Do you intend to spend the rest of your lives fishing for fish that 
keep managing to elude your net? There are sheep to feed and to 
find. And the colder the night, the greater the need. Endure with us 
to the end. 

Those who endure to the end shall be saved and God will call 
them blessed. Amen. 

A Theology for Ethics 

April 1965 
Matthew 26:6-13 

What on earth is the church supposed to do? Granted that every 
church is comprised of sinners saved by grace. Granted that Chris- 
tians seldom, if ever, do the best that they can. Granted if we knew 
what to do — those of us here — we would find many reasons for 
evading the responsibility therein implied. Despite this and all else, 
what on earth is the church going to do if it does not find out what 
on earth it is supposed to do? 

There is enough wrong in the world for the church to do some- 
thing. Whether it be the breakdown of social morality, the escalat- 
ing war in Vietnam, the quality of family life, the specter of poverty 
in Appalachia, continuing unemployment in an automated world, 
concrete jungles of urbanization and the depersonalization of its 
humans, 01 the secular binge of academe, one thing is certain: there 
is much to be done. 

This is the point exactly. The church does not know what to do 
when there is so much to be done. By church, in this context, I refer 
not only to the institution but to Christians in a more personal and 
individual sense. It does not appear that Christians know what on 
earth to do as Christians, whether they are acting self-consciously 
as part of the church or not. I am more impressionistic than statisti- 
cal at this point. But since this sermon began to demand expression, 
I have been asking other Christians and myself such a question. 
Generally speaking, the inquiry has left the answerers somewhat 
stunned, as if we had been hit on the head with the heavy end of a 
question mark. 

We are not unlike that day-laborer surplus which gathers at an 


70 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

abandoned service station in town, so the newspapers tell us, wait- 
ing half hopefully for someone to come by and offer a job. Since 
they are unskilled and so are we, we can be but tentatively hopeful 
because we are not sure that we can do the job that is suggested. It is 
an exceedingly busy world in which Christians as Christians and 
churches as churches have time on their hands, although they are 
busy beyond calculation as persons not necessarily Christian and as 
institutions other than churches. So we are faced with the possibil- 
ity that in a world where there is so much to do, we are popcorn- 
consuming spectators wondering how the game is going to come 
out, and only occasionally do we rally to lift a cheer" for our side. 

Let us make sure that, in response to this kind of criticism, we do 
not make use of a catchall answer such as that of the great commis- 
sion in Matthew's gospel. The church often loses itself in such 
generalities, while ignoring all things specific, until it finds that the 
generality is beyond its achievement. 

It is a safe conjecture that we no longer have much to do in the 
world, because we have not been doing much in particular in 
recent years. Caught up as it was in the American way of life, the 
church failed to address with prophetic particularity the two most 
pressing issues of recent American history. The labor movement in 
America found little or no support from the Protestant churches. In 
more recent times the liberation of the Negro was not, and has not, 
been greatly affected by the church's ministry. 

The raw irony of these situations is devastating. The church was 
but remotely and reluctantly involved in each. At the same time, 
this was the only involvement it had. It could preach to a cause in 
which it was not sacrificially concerned but which constituted 
about the only cause it had. Now labor and social legislation have 
marked out an inevitable path with regards to labor and the Negro 
in our country. Thus these two movements are removed from what 
was always but little more than conversation for the churches. In 
other words, the trend indicates that the church is even losing a 
great deal of what there once was to talk about. 

Insisting that this is the major cause of the church's inaction on all 
such issues is, however, a glaring oversimplification. A survey of 
comparatively recent church history can add considerably to un- 
derstanding and insight. 

A Theology for Ethics 71 

If we go back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is 
possible to pick up a religious attitude which is generally called 
pietism. This emphasized a deep personal and individualistic reli- 
gious experience which its converts sought to lock up within their 
own introverted lives. They thought little and cared less about the 
problems of man and the world in general. As they withdrew from 
society, they were content with a salvation by which they sought to 
assure their inner holiness and to remain unspotted from the 

In reaction to this other-wordly pietism came the event of the 
social gospel, which flourished greatly in the nineteenth century. 
Despite the endeavors of such men as Walter Rauschenbusch, the 
social gospel never achieved a system of doctrinal thought that 
could give it substance or enduring form. As Sidney Mead ob- 
serves in The Lively Experiment, 'There was assurance and comfort 
to be found in the thought that perhaps the Christian could not go 
too far astray when feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting 
the sick and imprisoned, and giving the cup of cold water for 
Christ's sake. Perhaps it was never formulated in just the same 
fashion, but one profound appeal of the social-gospel movement 
was that it made possible for many idealistic Americans continued 
belief in Christianity if only 'for the world's sake.' No doubt what 
many nominally Christian people really came to believe in was the 
work of social betterment and renovation." 

Another reaction began to appear in the later nineteenth century 
and has persisted for one hundred years. It took on the personal 
guise of the fundamentalist. I believe that some of us have wasted 
too much time and effort poking jibes at fundamentalism when we 
ought to be in some kind of dialogue with the world. But this much 
needs, at least, to be said. The fundamentalist stands as a classic and 
miserable failure in terms of what he started out to do and be. He 
offered the religious world great promise because he was going to 
recover a theological system of faith and practice. Quite accurately, 
he understood that the social gospel was bound to perish because it 
had no real theology and would dribble off into humanism and 
faith in good works. Instead of accomplishing this, the fundamen- 
talist capitulated to the charms of pragmatism. He endorsed what 
seemed to work. Shortly after his first appearance, he became 

72 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

nontheological and began to play the political power game in 
which he sought to gain control of denominational hierarchies, 
theological seminaries, and church-related colleges and universi- 
ties. He is still at this business, and his success is one of tragic 

We are still impoverished because the fundamentalist did not 
persist in his reason for existence. Thus we are left without the old 
fervor of the exponents of the social gospel, and instead of recover- 
ing a theology, we have learned how to live only with power 

The way out of this impasse seems to be in the direction of 
recovering a social passion and ethical concern while filling the 
theological void left by the abortive, fundamentalist attempt. If this 
void is to be filled, one of the first requirements is a theological ethic 
to establish a point of departure with reference to the kingdom of 
God on earth. 

Carlyle Marney in his the Recovery of the Person puts his finger on 
the misdirection of the liberal humanism and social gospel of the 
nineteenth century. It tried to have a Son without a Father — a 
Christ without God. "In overcoming moralistic pietism," Marney 
argues, "the nineteenth century liberal went too far. The Christ of 
their teachings had no Father . . . How could one speak of the Son 
who had no Father?" Furthermore, that gospel which emphasizes 
the kingdom of God must have an "alpha" as well as an "omega" — 
a beginning as well as an end. "They were speaking truly when 
they said the kingdom is the supreme end, they did not know it as a 
point of departure." Man must never believe that he brings in the 
kingdom by his own social and ethical endeavor. 

This view is assuredly implicit in Matthew 25 and 26. Much has 
been made of the unconscious element in the good works of the 
blessed in the parable of the judgment. Those who were doing good 
were not conscious that this was a ministry for Christ himself. 
Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me. 

Reading this idea in the light of Matthew 26, one gets a different 
view than were Matthew 25 read alone. For in the text of the 
morning, a woman who poured some very expensive ointment on 
the head of Christ is commended by him in the face of the critical 
disciples, who thought that the ointment should have been sold 

A Theology for Ethics 73 

and the proceeds given to the poor. Christ is speaking, almost 
radically to be sure, of adoration for the Son of God as an element 
not to be forgotten in our ethical concerns. What is done ethically 
must be done in terms of worship and praise for God. 

Even the parable of the judgment lends itself to this kind of 
interpretation. For the doers of good were called the blessed who 
inherited the kingdom before the foundation of the world. Their 
good works did not bring to being the kingdom. They were claim- 
ing their inheritance in a kingdom prepared before the world 
began and ushered in by Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling 
the world. A kingdom given in Christ rather than built by man is 
the essence of a theological ethic. 

The ethical church and Christians generally must also determine 
that they shall be judged by God alone. If this sounds somewhat 
arrogant, let it stand nevertheless. For the impotence of the Chris- 
tian community in our day rests, in at least one respect, in its 
thoroughgoing Americanism. It worries incessantly about its im- 
age in the world. What foreigner is not exhausted by the question 
on every hand: What do you think of America and Americans? 
Also, like America, the American church in trying to be self-critical 
manages only to be self-conscious and introverted. 

Rather than being judged by the world or one another, we must 
become the judge of the world. "The unspiritual man does not 
receive the gifts of the spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he 
is not able to understand them because they are spiritually dis- 
cerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself judged 
by no one." 

The church cannot afford to become so busy with itself and its 
image that it becomes irrelevant and powerless. Parenthetically, 
Russell Brantley said this beautifully not long ago in speaking 
about the image of Wake Forest College. Unless the church is will- 
ing to judge the world and then act redemptively in it, it is so out of 
character that it really has nothing to do. 

The reference to judgment brings us to the question of the 
church's salvation. Ethically considered, the church's concern for its 
own salvation is suspect on two counts. First of all the church 
cannot save itself. The church is created by God. It will be saved by 
God alone. And it will be saved as an instrument. It is designed to 

74 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

save the world. God's redemptive love is for the world, and he loves 
the church because it is a faithful instrument. The son was given for 
the world, not for us and the church. 

Finally, the church must be mindful of the grace of God. This 
does not only mean that we are forgiven of our sins but also that we 
carry treasure in earthen vessels and that God can and does use us 
in our imperfection. 

Because the church is in the world it must become all things to 
men in order to save some. But this kind of flexibility and permis- 
sives is corrected by what Paul also said: "But we have this treasure 
in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to 
God and not to us/' 

The church is always theological if it tries to do something, 
however imperfect and incomplete. Pietism, the social gospel, and 
fundamentalism at least served to show themselves as earthen 
vessels through which the power of God is made evident. In the last 
analysis the church becomes what it does, more than what it con- 
templates. It knows itself and is known by others in terms of its 
action. Where it stands is less significant than where it moves. The 
church should have the courage of imperfection, plunging into the 
realities of our time, and knowing that not only its worst but also its 
best efforts are still redeemed in a God who loves us 'beyond our 

Christ Undeviating 

April 4, 1981 
Matthew 16:11-28; II Thessalonians 2:16-3:5 

If Peter had prevailed, had gotten his way with Jesus that day at 
Caesarea Philippi, chances are that we would never have read of 
"the steadfastness of Christ" in the Bible. As a matter of fact, it 
remains anything but a household phrase in the scriptures. If one's 
loyalties bind the reader to the splendidly wrought King James 
Version — which, by the way, is now being disparaged by the 
inerrantists, of all people, as the poisoned product of a bunch of 
Anglicans — a "steadfast Christ" will not be portrayed in so many 
words. Among the options, "the steadfastness of Christ" is found in 
the Revised Version and The New English Bible. Other translations 
tell of his patience, his suffering, and his patient waiting. 

Despite the phrase's infrequent appearance in scriptures, it sure- 
ly belongs, as a word at the right time and in the right place, to 
Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians. The faithful of the church 
were being ridiculed and abused by their countrymen, and there 
was internal dissension due, in part, to the growing number of 
idlers in the membership. As a result, Paul directed the hearts of the 
faithful people to God's love and Christ's steadfastness. It is no 
undue strain upon the imagination to conjecture that the Savior's 
refusal to be deterred from going to Jerusalem, there to suffer and 
die and be raised, may have prompted Paul to remind the Thessa- 
lonians of the "steadfastness of Christ." 

The story of Peter 's dispute with Jesus is as familiar as breakfast 
cereal and generally leaves us with no better taste. Hard on the 
heels of Peter's confession that he was Christ, the Son of the living 
God, Jesus revealed that he was going to Jerusalem to proclaim the 


76 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

kingdom of God. Peter was quick to censure the Lord, even to the 
point of rebuking him, only to hear Jesus retort, "Get behind me, 
Satan. You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, 
but of man." Then the Savior set his face to go to Jerusalem for our 

Count with me now, if you will, the number of sometimes formi- 
dable, and nearly always convincing, reasons that Jesus could have 
used for aborting the Jerusalem trip. No person, having started on 
the road to an appointed destination, has been forced to refuse and 
plow through as many diverting encumberances as Jesus had to on 
the way to the cross. He had to take his first step much against the 
opinions of Peter, whom he had just made "chief of staff," had just 
called the "rock" on which the church was to build. But the disciple 
quickly became a stone over which to stumble rather than a sturdy 
slab on which to build. Jesus had to go to Jerusalem with Simon 
Peter and the other disciples on a tow line. 

A few of us know the trials of going it alone to our appointed 
places of proclaiming the kingdom of God. My home church barely 
squeaked out a call to the ministry, and my father offered a bribe big 
enough to make me nearly choke on "Here I am. Send me." He 
gladly and proudly withdrew his offer long before his death, but I 
have not even heard a squeak from my boyhood church across the 

The majority of us, although not of the clergy, have also known 
the pain of having to go alone to Jerusalem. You have had to set 
your face to go when it meant looking through and around dear 
and beseeching faces insisting that this was not your thing, saying 
that you ought to change your mind. But, for all that, most of us 
were not walking to a cross with the same dreadful certainty that 
Jesus knew on his way to Jerusalem. If we know how difficult it is 
to walk alone, think how much more difficult it must have been for 
Jesus to ignore the advice which might have meant life rather than 
death. But he went on his way for our salvation. 

When Jesus came to Jerusalem's outskirts — it being a city yet 
modest enough to try to cover its inner sin with some exterior 
clothing — he faced a second diversion different in nature but 
equally as compelling as the first. Applause and pomp filled the air. 
The Savior's path was strewn with palm leaves, which were acco- 

Christ Undeviating 77 

lades not designed to be walked over but to slow the pace until one 
could hear the echoing repetitions of praise and adulation. He had 
faced a similar temptation on the mountain of his transfiguration. 
Peter had not been one easily dissuaded. Along with James and 
John, this impetuous man had hoped to persuade Jesus to abide on 
the mountain and thus keep him out of Jerusalem. Perhaps Christ 
had assumed that once he came down from the mountain, there 
would be no more ploys, with praise as their powers of persuasion, 
to keep him from his meeting with the will of God. It was not to be. 
In Jerusalem's suburbs hosannas filled his ears, as they hovered in 
the air like panoplies of praise. But it was soon apparent that the 
people were applauding Jesus for what they wanted him to be, 
wished he were, rather than for what he intended to be and do. 
Accolades are like that. Applause if often an activity of self-interest, 
a lobbyist promoting its own cause. All of this must have made 
Jesus wonder if he were making the right choice. Would it not have 
been plausible for him to have stayed with those people, so con- 
vinced of his importance and power, and ministered to them with a 
life of dedication. He did not stay. He pushed on into the city for our 

He came soon to the temple. It was much in need of reform. The 
practice of the money-changers left a lot to be desired. The people 
were taking shortcuts through the sacred precincts as if they were 
trying to take the easiest and shortest path to righteousness and 
redemption. To be sure, reforming the temple would have taken 
more than an hour or so, a day or so, a month, or even a year or so; it 
would have taken decades. Was it now, however, a cause worthy of 
all the time that would be needed? Bringing the issue to our con- 
temporary setting, is there anything of greater urgency than re- 
forming and perfecting the church? Is this not what Christians 
should be doing for most of their waking hours? When I am trying 
to win a convert, nothing stings more than the retort that if the 
church were as faithful as it claims, it would be so much easier to 
believe the gospel it preaches. I am sure that you have heard a 
similar rebuff more than once. As for me, whenever I feel the slap 
of some such accusation, I hurry back to the church determined to 
purify it no matter what it will take in energy and time. It was not 
this way with Jesus. Leaving the temple in a mess, he went on his 

78 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

way, testifying by his actions that the kingdom of God would come 
not by means of a pure temple, but by the power of his crucifixion. 
He made that choice for our salvation. 

During that week of his passion in Jerusalem, Jesus also had to 
deal with political questions. He was asked about the legality, under 
Jewish law, of paying taxes to Caesar. Our tendency to read more 
into his answer than is probably justified indicates how much we 
rely on political solutions. 

His questioners may have had similar predispositions, even 
then, and Jesus may have taken them into account when he replied 
to their query. This could have been the reason for his nearly curt, 
flippant, and understated response. "Give to Caesar what is Cae- 
sar's, and to God what is God's/ said Jesus without elaboration and 
almost as if speaking over his shoulder as he hurried to Calvary for 
our salvation. 

Christ was also confronted with the plight of the poor presenting 
itself as one of the darkest hues in the shadow of the cross. Came 
that woman into Simon's house, where Jesus was probably dining 
on one of Martha's famous meals, to anoint him with costly oil. The 
disciples grumbled, "Why this waste? For this ointment might have 
been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor." "Why this waste?" 
they asked, because, like the rest of us, they placed more impor- 
tance upon feeding the immediate needs of the poor than upon 
death for the eventual redemption of the world. Knowing the truth 
that no one cared or would care for the poor more than he, Christ 
must have given thought to dealing with the problems of poverty 
and want before permitting himself to be crucified. But he refused 
to be deterred. "The poor you have with you always," he explained, 
keeping his face set steadfastly on the cross for our salvation. 

Throughout those final and dreadful days, there was yet another 
diversion with which our Lord was forced to deal. It had to do with 
Jesus as a master teacher. We can only surmise how many lessons 
and parables Jesus taught during the last week of his life. We may 
be reasonably sure that his prophetic assignation of woes for the 
religious leaders took place at this time. There are also the rich and 
telling parables of the wedding garment, the ten maidens, the 
talents, and the last judgment. The nature of the second coming 
was described. Multitudes gathered to hear his words as he estab- 

Christ Undeviating 79 

lished himself as one of the truly great teachers of his time. This 
congregation is likely to appreciate Jesus's temptation to postpone 
the crucifixion in order to live in Jerusalem as an incomparable 
"professor." Indeed, we would be prone to wonder, more than 
others, why Jesus did not decide to set aside the cross for the sake of 
knowledge. But Jesus did not linger long enough to give final 
exams; he was crucified for our salvation. 

In the letter to the Thessalonians, Paul used the steadfastness of 
Christ as an example by which those beleaguered people might 
fashion their own fidelity. It was a good lesson for them. It is a good 
lesson for us. Firmly being who we are, resolutely doing what we 
should, and stubbornly sticking to our commitments make for 
important qualities in our lives. Satisfaction, a sense of well-being 
and accomplishment seldom come short of keeping our pledges of 
being dependable, of achieving what we propose, of reaching desti- 
nations, of being in and on time, and of being faithful members of 
Christ's body according to our baptismal vows. Steadfastness has 
much to do with the shape and stuff of our lives. 

Even so, it is not our steadfastness which really or ultimately 
matters. The fact that we are does not guarantee that any of us will 
go all the way with Jesus to the cross; most of us will not. His best 
friends, the disciples who have witnessed to us about him, were 
hardly steadfast in that respect. Here is the point. We do not have to 
make it all the way, What really matters is that, even if we do not, he 
did — for our salvation. 

Easter's Glad Irony 

April 11, 1982 
Mark 16; I Corinthians 15:12-50 

"Pity the God who has no better defense than the church/' is 
what William Willimon has recently had to say with his consider- 
able talents for words. As Willimon sees the church, especially 
during Lent, it is a church which has to wait, and while waiting 
must be honest about the human situation — one of evil injustice, 
unfulfilled hope, and unanswered questions — a church which has 
to be tentative in hope, resting on faith as a now-but-not-yet busi- 
ness, and one which is forever confronted by sad faces which do not 
reflect the joy of salvation or deliverance. Willimon agrees with 
Woody Allen, "It's not that God is cruel; it's just that God is an 
underachiever." And if his estimate is true of both God and the 
church, then this underachieving God is to be pitied if he has no 
better defense than the church. 

Since it is Easter Sunday, and Easter Sunday is not the day for 
prolonged debate, I do not wish to argue the case with Willimon 
one way or another. Let us even suppose that he is right on both 
counts, that an underachiever God is matched by an underachiever 
church. Then we might see what is meant by my use of the title 
"Easter's Glad Irony," because with respect to the resurrection of 
Jesus Christ, God has left so much up to the church. I do not mean 
that the truth of the resurrection rests upon the church, but the 
telling of it does. It was that way from the beginning: only believers 
saw the empty tomb, only believers began to tell the story of a risen 
Lord, only believers testified of the appearances of a risen Christ in 
their midst. And although Paul was not a believer when first 
encountering the risen Lord, he became a believer and had more to 


82 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

do with the founding of the Christian church than any other than 
Christ himself. Paul was made an exception for the sake of the 

So much of the Judeo-Christian story has something more sub- 
stantial in its support than does the resurrection. The most of its 
events have left some tracks in history. There were floods in what 
might be conceived as Noah's time; there were migrations out of 
Egypt into the Promised Land; there was a Decaloguge to which the 
Jews were committed; Jesus was born among some questions as to 
whether or not Joseph was his father; Jesus was crucified as an 
event in history. One does not have to be a Christian to accept the 
reality of these matters in one way or another. But the resurrection 
has not been photographed for history because it did not occur in 
history in any way to make an imprint upon it, unless one wishes 
to get enshrouded in the shroud debate. The only manifestation of 
the resurrection of substance (by that I mean something that sits on 
the ground and has visibility and shape) is the church, and the only 
ones there are to tell about the resurrection now have heard it from 
someone else who had heard it from someone else, until it is traced 
back to those who saw an empty tomb and a risen Lord in forms 
which they did not quite comprehend. Paul was somewhat of an 
exception, but aside from him whether then or now, those people 
who claim to have experienced the risen Lord are people who 
believe that Lord is risen because of what they have heard from 

Of all the essential truths of Christianity, the resurrection is 
probably the most central, and it more than any other truthful 
event depends upon the testimony of the church made up of peo- 
ple like you and me. In other words, the world and the church live 
with the possibility that the resurrection is nothing more than a 
rumor. If so, the church has embellished its hearsay through the 
years and has literally dared the world to deny its witness to the 
resurrection. It is rather conclusively the church's business. 

Mark's gospel may be correct in indicating that the church did 
not start out with great eagerness to talk about the resurrection. 
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to 
the grave after the Sabbath was past and were amazed to see the 
stone rolled away. A young man dressed in white told them not to 
be amazed, "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has 

Easter's Glad Irony 83 

risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him." The young 
man or angel may or may not, the scholars cast some doubt here, 
told the women to tell the disciples and Peter that the risen Christ 
may be found in Galilee. In any event the women were amazed, 
trembling with astonishment, and Mark tells us that they did not 
speak to anyone about a risen Christ, "for they were afraid." 

Other gospels handle the story in different ways but I suspect 
that Mark's gospel is not far afield in suggesting that the initial 
response of the people of Christ to his resurrection was indeed one 
of fear. If the account is at all trustworthy, these women were not 
afraid of the threat of grave robbers, nor of the authorities who 
might not want such a tale spread abroad, nor even were they 
afraid of being ridiculed for having come up with such a story. The 
word Mark uses to describe their fear is the one that Luke uses in 
telling of the fear of the shepherds upon hearing the angel tell of 
the birth of the child, Christ the Lord. Their fear was made of 
reverence and awe, of some sense of the holy which they did not 
understand, and they were afraid to speak of it. 

So much of this is true of even yet. If we fear to speak of the 
resurrection of Christ, how much more frightened are we to speak 
of resurrection for people like ourselves and indeed to speak of 
resurrection of ourselves. We do some very fine things when peo- 
ple die. One of the finest things we do is take food into the home of 
the deceased — food which is not only the substance of life but, in 
this circumstance, a telling symbol of life. And often we take the 
food and set it down on the kitchen counter and slip away without 
so much as a word because we are afraid that we do not know what 
to say or do in a most proper sense. I find no cause to be critical of 
this to an extreme degree. Resurrection is not to be spoken of lightly 
or in jest, and we are therefore reluctant to do so, and we who are 
believers have also come to realize that if resurrection cannot or is 
not spoken of at the time of death, the rest of what there is to say is 
hardly worth the trouble. 

Although Paul's letter to the Corinthians was written before 
Mark's gospel was set down, the apostle's treatment of the resurrec- 
tion represents a later development than what was true of these 
first believers rushing away in consternation and dread from the 
open tomb. Although Paul encountered the risen Lord while still 
an unbeliever, a matter probably never duplicated before or since, it 

84 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

must be remembered that he had heard the testimony of a risen 
Lord many times before from the Christians he was engaged in 
persecuting. A resurrected Christ was no stranger to Paul when he 
met him and was much less a strange idea. This is evidenced by the 
fact that much which Paul had to say about the resurrection was 
said out of the traditional accounts and interpretations that he had 
heard from others. But by this time Paul as spokesman for the 
church — and having along with others experienced a risen pres- 
ence of Christ, and knowing of the body-soul dualism, by which 
the Corinthians, affecting the mind of the Greeks, could believe in 
life after death by believing in the immortality of the soul — was 
ready to shock the world with an affirmation of the resurrection of 
the body. 

We may be sure that what was true then is not only less true 
today. People do not mind embracing some concept of the immor- 
tality of the soul, where the soul loses itself in the oversoul which 
hovers above, a kind of absorbent overblob that obscures all sepa- 
rate identities, but what the world has never been able to take with 
either ease or grace is the concept of the resurrection of the body. 
Paul further confused the issue, then and now, by suggesting that 
flesh and blood could not inherit the kingdom of God, even while 
he was speaking of the resurrection of the body as the only sensible 
basis for belief in eternal life, only to explain the whole of his 
position by insisting that the resurrection body is a spiritual body, 
not a physical body such as the one that is buried. 

One of the reasons that Christians cannot give clear answers to 
the world about the details and nature of the resurrected Christ or 
of what we mean by resurrected body is that the New Testament is 
almost as confusing to the believers as to the outsiders. With the 
resurrection we are forced to express the truth about Easter, as 
Ronald Goetz has put it, which "is more true than any of our 

But the church has dared wonderfully not to hide behind the 
alibi that you cannot understand the resurrection without exper- 
iencing it, without believing in it. Instead of hiding so the church, 
mostly because of Paul, has attempted to contend for the resurrec- 
tion in the form of intellectual respectability. Paul's argument for a 
spiritual body in place of a physical body is no more far-fetched 
than the idea that the soul somehow has a life apart from the body, 

Easter's Glad Irony 85 

which is maintained throughout this life somewhat is a prisoner of 
the flesh, and then at death is released to soar in the heavens. 

Even in the midst of our intellectualizing about the resurrection, 
if asked what is meant by the resurrection of the body, how may it 
come to pass, and what is the nature of the risen body in heaven, 
we face our questioner with crinkled eyes and sheepish grin. And 
are forced often to confess that we do not know exactly what we 
mean, that we have no idea about how it is in heaven, but that we 
have learned this from the tradition, it is something that we have 
always heard, and we are still examining it, explaining it while we 
believe it, and because we believe it we know it to be true. 

So you see what we are doing to the world; we are intellectualiz- 
ing about a truth which can neither be verified nor disputed. We 
have for so long a time been making sensible and rational sounds 
about the resurrection all the while we are saying that it is a supra- 
rational and supra-historical and supra-natural event. We will ar- 
gue with the disbelievers, the cynics, the agnostics, atheists, logical 
positivists, and whatever into the wee hours of the night, present- 
ing some logical weapons in our behalf which they are forced to 
take seriously, but if and when they finally overwhelm us with 
their own logic, and we are getting the worst of the debate, we leave 
no doubt in their minds that we are going to believe in a risen Lord, 
experience a risen Lord, wait for the return of a risen Lord, would 
be disappointed if the shroud proved anything — despite all the 
logic and failed explanations in the world. And mind you this, 
when the discussions take this turn of events, the logicians are the 
ones who come close to losing their cool, even sometimes to the 
point of making sarcastic remarks that they wish they could learn 
how to be as big fools as we are. And do you know what? Even 
when their sarcasm drips with the acid of innuendo and the barbs 
of insinuation, they appear to mean what they say. They too would 
like to be fools for Christ's sake. 

One is forced to engage in mischievous play with the world 
when testifying to the risen Lord. We pray that it is not harmful and 
we must make sure that it is not malicious. But we act as if we are 
willing to engage the rational world in argumentation about the 
resurrection on its own terms, those of logic and rationality and 
whatever else. But then when we prove to be no match for the 

86 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

world on its own rational terms, we change the rules of the game 
and talk about the foolishness of God being wiser than men and 
admit that we are engaged in folly and that which causes people to 
stumble because we are actually being fools for Christ's sake. 

What we are doing all the while is trying to get the world to bend 
its ear to the music of the Easter dance, to the bell-like sounds of the 
Easter morn, hoping all the while that some whom we have so 
engaged will be caught up with us when we change the rules of the 
dialogue, thus causing them to stumble — but, to stumble into 
faith. But it is more than mischief. Assured Christians need to 
remember that perhaps the finest believing that is going on is with 
those for whom faith is an enormous struggle of the intellect. 

The point is that there we are today, each in his or her own way 
making testimony to the risen Lord, some able to do so with great 
simplicity, others with impossibly difficult, complications, but all of 
us knowing that Christ does not lie buried back there in Joseph's 
tomb. If we believed that, we would not be here. And as long as we 
are here, the world does have a glad irony on its hands. And next 
Sunday, after the to-do has subsided, the irony will only be that 
much greater. 

The Third Day and 
The Last Day 

April 1, 1972 
Isaiah 40:1-5, 27-31; I Corinthians 15:51:58 

When we say "I doubt that" or "I wonder about that/' we usually 
mean the same thing. What holds true for our common language 
does not obtain in the biblical language. Doubt and wonder are miles 
apart so far as scripture is concerned. Doubt means to judge diverse- 
ly, to stand divided, or to be without resources in its biblical setting. 
Wonder indicates astonishment — a state of being startled by mar- 
velous events. 

In the light of that distinction, a Christian should celebrate Easter 
Sunday by dealing with wonder more than dealing with doubt. 
Easter worship is a matter of proving nothing but celebrating much 
in terms of wonder and adoration. 

We are well served by the frequent reminder that knowledge or 
certainty is not the opposite of doubt. The opposite of doubt is faith. 
To take the position that we do not doubt the resurrection of Jesus 
Christ does not mean that we know it for certain, down to the final 
and most minute detail. The resurrection does not add to our doubt 
because we have faith. It adds to our wonder because it is almost too 
marvelous to behold. 

Perhaps this explains why over half the times that wonder ap- 
pears in the Old Testament, it is accompanied by signs which give 
testimony to its reality. In the New Testament, wonder never occurs 
without the support of signs. In all cases, however, these signs do 
not eliminate the need for ventures of faith. It is faith, not the signs, 
which deal effectively with doubt. All of the signs are so ambigu- 
ous as to point to the event of power but in such a way as to make us 
wonder all the more. 


The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

We are not gathered for the purpose of proving the resurrection 
to anyone — not to ourselves, not even to the skeptic. We are simply 
here to celebrate its wonder and its truth. This does not mean that 
Easter is not a great day for doubters to be at church. The worship of 
the church will not do much to drive away their doubts. But if the 
faithful are celebrating Easter as they should be, most any doubter 
— even if he should think that he is in the company of fools — will 
probably wish that he could become a fool in his own right. 

After all, if Christ is not risen, there is no place for us to go and try 
to prove to ourselves that he is. When the church sets itself to prove 
that Christ is risen, it serves only to discredit itself. As Paul put it, 
" . . . if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and 
your faith is in vain." A church cannot prove the resurrection after 
the fact. Had there been no resurrection there would be no church. 

Herin lies an introductory clue for the first cause of our celebra- 
tion. Paul says twice within a short span: ". . . if there is no resurrec- 
tion of the dead, then Christ has not been raised." "For if the dead 
are not raised, then Christ has not been raised." These are words of 
wonder which startle me almost out of my boots. The resurrection 
of us, the likes of you and me, was already promised before Christ 
died and was raised from the dead. His resurrection did not intro- 
duce the concept or the event to man; it was the guarantee of what 
had already been promised to man. Since he had taken upon him- 
self our humanity, then if resurrection were not a possibility for us, 
it could not be a possibility for him. So much does God love us that, 
if we cannot be raised from the dead, neither can his beloved Son be 
raised from the dead. Now this surely cannot mean that the resur- 
rection of Christ is dependent upon the resurrection of man. The 
concept does not point to the dependency and powerlessness of 
Christ but to the love of God. God will not give to His only Son the 
exclusive gift of resurrection. Indeed if we are not to be raised, then 
we may be sure that Christ has not been raised. The wonder of 
resurrection is that, instead of our resurrection proceeding from 
and after the waking of Christ, his resurrection is in the light of the 
promise given to every man. 

One can do more than conjecture at the faithlessness of the 
disciples after the crucifixion. In this wise, I am coming more to 
grounding that faithlessness not so much in the fact that the disci- 

The Third Day and The last Day 89 

pies could not accept the possibility of the resurrection of Jesus 
Christ but that they could not believe in the possibility of their own 
resurrection. Christ could not arise from the dead because the dead 
could not be raised. 

This explains why the entire mission dissolved immediately 
after the crucifixion. Not only did the disciples believe that Christ 
was dead. They were quite certain that they were dead to all intents 
and purposes. Had they thought otherwise, they would have logi- 
cally and quickly gathered themselves to plan how they would 
carry on the mission. They would have elected a new leader and 
assigned specific tasks to specific people. 

The record shows that this was farthest from their minds. Not 
only were they cowering in fear in their hiding rooms, but John's 
gospel implies that they were about to break up the group. Simon 
Peter was ready to go back to the fishing trade — fishing for fish 
again — and six other disciples were ready to go with him. Even old 
Thomas was up for that. Along with the rest, he had already seen 
the risen Lord and in a very special way. But you see, these men 
were confronting their own death, their own aborted mission in the 
world, and they were going back to that lif elessness of before — the 
time before they were called to be fishers of men. And Thomas 
went along, although he was not mentioned as a fisherman when 
the story began. I attach no great importance to that; I am just 

But the facts are that Jesus had to come through shut doors to get 
at them with the truth that, because he was alive, they were also 
alive. And today we celebrate our own resurrection as well as the 
resurrection of the Lord, if we are to celebrate at all. Paul said of us 
that the whole creation waits to come alive at the redemption of this 
body, which is the church. By this we know that Christ has been 
raised from the dead because His body is here. But we are not here 
to prove anything. We are here to live because we are alive. 

Now, let it be understood that our celebration is only partial. It is 
not yet complete. That is yet to be. So alive as we are, we wait for his 
coming again in order for all things to be secure and for the mystery 
to be completely unfolded. One need only to look at the word and 
the church in order to note how ridiculous the church appears, if it 
acts like a complete celebration is in order. Karl Barth warned the 

90 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

church never to forget that it was still on the march, on the way but 
not yet fully arrived at home. "It is not content/' he said once of the 
church, "to be like the virgins at the marriage feast, but obviously 
behaves as if the 'cause of God' were in its own hands. Instead of 
bearing witness to the authority of Jesus, it invests itself with His 
authority attributing absolute perfection to its order and ministry 
and cultus and dogma, and interpreting historical evolution as the 
automatic development of the divine truth incarnate in itself. Thus 
at each successive stage of its development, it acts and speaks as if it 
were permitted and commanded to blow the last trumpet now." 

It has already been said that the signs accompanying the wonder 
are ambiguous. This is especially true with the resurrection won- 
der. It is noteworthy, for example, that all the signs steer clear of 
pointing directly to the resurrection event, to its nature, or to how it 
occurred. The evidence of the signs is the mind-boggling empty 
tomb and the appearances of Jesus, bodily formed, recognizable, 
but not at once. 

When he purports to answer the question, How are the dead 
raised? Paul contents himself with a description of the resurrection 
body. He tells the difference between the body that dies and the 
body that is raised. 

The Bible affords little or no description of the life which has put 
on immortality in the resurrection. With the exception of some 
highly speculative figurations, most of the New Testament does not 
address itself to the nature of the afterlife. Revelation tells of the 
absence of night, tears, and church in the new Jerusalem coming 
from heaven. But for all its esoteric daring, Revelation stays clear of 
detailing the nature and scope of life after death. 

Far more frequent and characteristic are verses suggesting that 
the resurrection of life is yet hidden from us. So the Colossian letter 
can read "For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in 
God." That surely alludes to our life in resurrection. It goes on to say, 
"When Christ who is our life appears, you also will appear with 
him in glory." That is surely what is yet to be revealed on the last 
day, the day of glory and triumph. I John echoes the same theme in 
the hauntingly beautiful promise: "Beloved, we are God's children 
now; it does not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that 
when he appears, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is." 

Red House 

Baptist Church, Richmond, 

Kentucky, 1939-1941 

First Baptist Church Coeburn, Virginia, 1941-1943 

First Baptist Church 

1 120 Mercer Street Phone 314-L 

Warren T. Carr 

Chapel Minister 
Clayton D. Sweet 

The Church With A P u r f o s e 

A Bulletin while Warren was Pastor at the 
First Baptist Church, Princeton, West Virginia, 1943-1946 




















Warren's Portrait by Anne Kesler Shields 

Warren and Martha 

a A 

Warren as a Letterman at 
Transylvania College 

Warren and Dick Howerton 
at Southern Seminary 

Warren Courting Martha 

Wedding Picture 

of Warren 

and Martha 

The Carr Family 

The Third Day and The Last Day 91 

All of this suggests that we are waiting for the final celebration. 
"God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteous- 
ness by a man whom he has appointed and of this he has given 
assurance to all men by raising him from the dead." The mystery 
will be unfolded on that day when the Lord comes with trailing 
clouds of glory to vindicate the life he lived and died and was 
raised. And our resurrection points to that event. We then will be 
up and around for the last big party. And we ought to have enough 
oil in our lamps to keep the party going so that night does not come. 
The third day of resurrection clearly points to the last day of glory. 

Now I readily admit that I have been speaking with you in 
symbols and signs, on the one hand so ambiguous as to defy 
certainty and on the other so as to make us afraid to presume that 
we understand. You may be sure, as well, that I am aware of 
treading on the repugnant ground of the otherworldly concepts, 
which is so nauseous to modern man. Indeed, if I may make a 
curious boast, it takes no little nerve to talk about the second 
coming in a place like this. Theologians of hope — a new and 
somewhat popular breed — make the matter a bit more respectable. 
But I do not intend to turn to this category for support. 

No matter how ambiguous a symbol may be, if it can be applied 
to our experience, it has both sense and value. And that is what I 
propose. In other words, I believe that we can adopt a life style from 
these symbols of the third day of resurrection and the last day of the 
second coming. And I can see three characteristics of the style 
before us. 

We are a people who wait for the final mystery of the faith to 
unfold. When we are questioned as to theodicy — How can a good 
God allow evil in the world? — we know that we must give the best 
answers that are available, but that in the final analysis we must 
wait and see and so must the world wait and see. And we live the 
resurrection life in terms of being up and around for what is yet to 
be. We make no grandiose claims for what we are. We make no 
intimations that we know more about the mystery than the un- 
washed. We simply celebrate the fact that Easter has guaranteed us 
a place at the last party, when we shall know. 

I submit that this waiting style of life, a mixture of confidence 
and hope, can fit the human experience. It makes sense. It can be 

92 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

lived as a way of life. It is confident without being cocksure. And it 
beckons to joy rather than burying us in sadness. If that were all, 
just the hope of being at the party I could live with that. But that is 
not all. 

We wait for the day when Christ, who overcame sin and death — 
giving us assurance of the same — will be vindicated in a victory 
celebration. He will be justified in the eyes of men. He will be 
verified as the genuinely human, the incarnate of God in history. 
By his vindication, we will be vindicated. All this foolishness will 
no longer be foolishness. All this caring, and waiting, and worship- 
ping, and ritualizing, and baptizing, and communing, and inte- 
grating, and pacif icating, and kingdom talking, and God language, 
and agape, and law — all of this folly will be seen as the wisdsom of 

And all that now we know is that we are the children of God, 
hidden in him with the Risen Lord. You see it has just occurred to 
me that this may be the best life style of all. I do not know who I am. 
But that is not doleful confession. I do not have to know right now, 
nor go around pinching myself into wakefulness trying to find out, 
nor worry about my masks, nor have an identity crisis. Hear the 
admission. I do not know who I am. But I will know even as I am 
fully known. You see, as God's children now, we do not even have to 
know who we are nor what we shall become. We can wait and see at 
the party. And that is a relief. We are resurrected. We have from now 
to then — from the third day to the last — to find out who we are. 
What a relief! 

The Theological Basis 
for Inclusiveness 

There is an assumption in the title of this address which must not 
go unnoticed. I do not question whether or not there is a theological 
basis for inclusiveness, but we must entertain some doubt as to its 
relevance. For society in general, the problem of inclusive rather 
than exclusive man, regarding racial and all other barriers except- 
ing denominationalism or dogma, is sociological rather than the- 
ological in nature. 

Bishop Robinson in The New Reformation calls our attention to 
the change in man's search for community. No longer does he ask, 
how can I find a gracious God? but rather, how can I find a gracious 
neighbor? I am impressed that the majority which poses this ques- 
tion has already decided that God is irrelevant to the question of 

It ought not to surprise us that this is the case. The community of 
faith has always managed, sometimes with no little effort, to pose 
the irrelevance of God both for itself and the whole of humankind. 
Consider the history of Israel. When these people were called into 
being by the word of God, the problem of finding a friend in nature 
was very much with them. Upon arriving in the Promised Land, 
they did not know how to capture the "flow of milk and honey." 
Their immediate need was to assure an existence by planting and 
harvesting the earth. No doubt but that they wondered, how can I 
find a gracious God? But in answer to their own question, they 
lusted for the gods of the Canaanites, the Baals, for these were the 
gods of fertility giving promise of regular and abundant harvests. 


94 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Thus it was that Yahweh, who delivered them from the furnaces of 
Egypt, was summarily dismissed when they had to become farm- 
ers. One can hardly expect the world to depend on the God whom 
the faithful have so consistently rejected throughout their history. 

This faithlessness has never been more virulent than in the past 
few years when white Christians preempted God from what they 
called "their churches/' so as to prohibit the presence of Negroes in 
their services of worshipping the God who has already been re- 
moved from the premises. There we stayed on our little reserva- 
tions while the tide of history flowed through the streets until it 
was deep enough to lap at the edges of the lunch counters of the 
variety stores. The lines of communication were inundated by the 
human flood escaping from the cesspools of segregation as it sought 
out the river beds of social freedom. Those lines have not been 
repaired and we, on the Christian reservation, have been cut off 
from the outside world. It is a live possibility that they are beyond 
repair and will never again become operative. 

A less dramatic but perhaps more significant fact has to do with 
the long history of barriers and divisions between men which have 
been erected in the name and for the sake of theology itself. Al- 
though not common only to the United States, the tragic conse- 
quence of religious pluralism has nowhere been so starkly realized. 
Sidney Mead has observed that the Christians in this new land 
agreed with each other that an ordered society was dependent upon 
a body of beliefs and principles held in common by the majority of 
the people. The only disagreement at this point between the estab- 
lished and the free churchmen was whether acquiescence to this 
body of beliefs should be coerced with the help of the state or 
should come by means of persuasion. 

The free church principle prevailed and religious freedom was 
assured. An important and negative factor, which was unnoticed in 
the rapture over religious liberty stemming from those days was 
the nature and quality of the dogma by which the denominations 
justified their existence and distinguished themselves from each 
other. Mead is particularly insightful at this juncture. Since the 
various churches agreed on the beliefs, which would assure an 
ordered society and a community of men, the beliefs which sepa- 
rated them from each other were, by the same token, irrelevant to 
order and community. By their own admission the distinctive prin- 

The Theological Basis for Inclusiveness 95 

ciples of the denominations were hardly beneficial and certainly 
not necessary to the common welfare. Mead concludes, perhaps 
with some sardonic amusement, that the result of all this is that the 
public school is the religious establishment in the United States. 
Here are located both the teaching and the deeds considered neces- 
sary to the country's welfare. This is borne out by the fact that no 
longer does the majority in the civil rights movement concern itself 
with integrating the churches but is increasing the pressure to 
integrate the schools. Indeed, the few churches which are open to 
all races are having difficulty persuading Negroes to become a part 
of their congregations. 

Looking back one wonders how the churches ever expected to be 
relevant to the crisis of race when they were already so miserably 
divided on the irrelevant issues of dogmas that they would die for. 
We can hardly expect the culture to look to churches to lead the way 
in social inclusiveness when they exclude one another by baptism, 
communion, and other theologically distorted positions. 

We churchmen must realize that we are presently immobilized, 
impaled on the hook of our own failures. Whether God is going to 
use the church and its theological format for assuring community 
in the world is a moot question. He must answer it. We cannot. 

We can, however, seek out a way to "get off the hook" if God calls 
us back to work out of his grace and mercy. What to do when we get 
our feet on the ground again will be a part of our responsibility. 
God will give us marching orders, but we must be willing to join 
with his will in determining our direction and our objective. 

If the theological dimension is to recover relevance, a radical 
direction and conduct are indicated. I propose the most radical of all 
apparent possibilities. With full acknowledgment of the church's 
failure to do much, if anything, noteworthy in the avant-garde of 
the entire civil rights movement, I am convinced that the church 
should now dare to judge the movement, both its means and its 
ends — its methods and its results, by the revelation given from 
God in a theological construct. 

This will be a calculated risk. The church will naturally suffer the 
shame and embarrassment of being reminded of its failures at 
every turn. Yet I am convinced that nothing short of this kind of 
radical venture will restore the theological relevance to the problem 

96 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

of human community. The only witness it can make will appropri- 
ate Paul's Corinthian word: 

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the 
transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are 
afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not 
driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, 
but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of 
Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our 

Had the first apostles refused to proclaim the Gospel in the wake 
of their betrayals, denials, and cowardly desertion at Calvary, the 
world would have been bereft. The social milieu of this day will be 
equally bereft unless the church is willing to bring judgment, from 
its theological perspective, upon the civil rights movement. 

That judgment must begin with the church's own confession. 
That judgment must admit that justice cannot always wait for love. 
But such judgment must not end until it insists that love cannot be 
reduced solely to the technique of nonviolent demonstration. It is 
up to the church to say forcefully and unequivocally that the end 
result of the civil rights movement, if it follows its present trend, 
will be freedom of movement and access for the Negro over a wide 
social expanse but that it will not eventuate into brotherhood or 
communities established and informed by love. Let me repeat that 
the fact of the church's failure even at the level of common justice 
must not be allowed to silence its prophetic word in this primary 
need. This may be the only line of communication which has not 
been so badly damaged by the storm as to be beyond repair. 

Most of the time it is better to deal with the obvious than with 
the less apparent. Were I to do this in connection with the theologi- 
cal basis for inclusiveness, I would naturally deal with justice, 
brotherhood, and love. My decision to take a different tack in no 
way disparages the primary significance of these theological con- 
cerns. That they have been proclaimed so much that they are 
falling on deaf ears prompts me to bring to attention some support- 
ing theological considerations which have not received the notice 
they are due. 

The first matter that should claim our consideration, in this wise, 

The Theological Basis for Inclusiveness 97 

is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The doctrine needs 
contemporary implementation so that its force will not be spent on 
speculating about man's appearance or condition after death. Its 
point of application ought to rest on what this means about living 
men in the present time. The doctrine insists that man cannot be 
divided into flesh and spirit, body and soul. He is whole man and is 
affected wholly by his experiences and his relationships. As the 
doctrine of "total depravity" was drawn to indicate that man could 
not sin in a part of his being but was sinful in every facet of his life, 
so the resurrection of the body means that man cannot be hurt, 
loved, accepted, or rejected in part. His whole being is affected. 

The implication ought then to be clear. One cannot be physically 
segregated and spiritually integrated. If a man's skin is rejected, his 
heart knows it and no amount of argument or assurance to the 
contrary will make a particle of difference. Conversely, one who 
rejects a person's physical presence cannot love that person in some 
spiritualized sense no matter how spiritual he thinks he is. Those 
people who segregate now but agree that there will be no segrega- 
tion in heaven are counting on God's skinning all of us as soon as 
we are far enough through the pearly gates to satisfy any modesty 
we may have. What if God did not? Some men would probably 
seek other accomodations. 

Men of pure hatred will not be appreciably moved by this argu- 
ment, but it ought to do something for the misguided creature who 
has lived with one set of physical values and another set of spiritual 
values. This is a false dichotomy, and the sooner we realize it the 
better. Man's attitude toward God cannot be separated from the 
condition of his stomach. An empty belly does not move him 
toward God seeking nurture for an emaciated spirit or soul. The 
whole man is either loved or hated — included or excluded. And 
the whole man is affected one way or the other. Incalculable dam- 
age has been done to man because this doctrine has not been taken 
seriously. Incalculable good may ensue when it is taken seriously. 

The definition of the church is the second theological consider- 
ation to which I would call your attention. The church is not a static 
society, the definition of which should remain inviolate from its 
beginnings. It was a significant stand that the free churches, from 
which the Baptists have evolved, took in connection with the Ref- 

98 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

ormation. They insisted that restitution rather than reformation 
was the basic need. They were unwilling to recognize the church of 
their day as the genuine article needing renovation. Instead, they 
argued for the restoration of the true church and set about to see 
that this should come to pass. I would not have us go back on that. It 
has enriched the life of the church for all these centuries. What does 
call for a more careful scrutiny is whether or not we should follow 
our forebears in their insistence that the only valid and relevant 
church for any day is one taken from the model of the New Testa- 
ment church. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this was 
probably the case. It is not necessarily the same for the twentieth 
century. One need not disregard the virtues of the New Testament 
church in striving for churches which are authentic and effective in 
the present era. But in seeking to define the church for now, he 
must first take notice of the twentieth century condition rather 
than thinking in terms of first century needs. I believe that Paul 
Tillich came very close to defining the twentieth century church in 
a commendable and helpful way. He has described a church that 
does have the ingredients of an accepting or inclusive community. 
At the same time, he sees the need for some kind of personal 
decision on the part of those seeking acceptance. A church, he 
wrote, is a community of those who affirm that Jesus is the Christ. 
The very name Christian implies this. For the individual, this 
means a decision — not as to whether he, personally, can accept the 
assertion that Jesus is the Christ, but the decision as to whether or 
not he wishes to belong or not to a community which asserts that 
Jesus is the Christ. If he decides against this, he has left the church, 
even if, for social or political reasons, he does not formalize his 
denial. Many formal members in all the churches more or less 
consciously do not want to belong to the church. The church can 
tolerate them, because it is not based on individual decisions but on 
the spiritual presence and its media. 

The church as an accepting community must be the hallmark of 
its existence and ministry for these days. And what impresses me 
about Tillich's definition is that a church can be an accepting com- 
munity so long as it knows Jesus Christ and is blessed by his 
presence. So long as the church maintains this posture it need not 
be threatened by any stranger which appears on its threshold. 

The Theological Basis for Inclusiveness 99 

This kind of radical inclusiveness on the part of the church 
would go so far beyond the question of race and class categories as 
to make a segregated church utterly ridiculous. To return to my 
original question. The answer to theological relevance to the ques- 
tion of inclusiveness will lie with these kinds of daring and adven- 
turous doctrines. It is time that we face up to our theological tasks. 

Christians and War 

June 8, 1974 
Exodus 15:1-3; 17:14-16; John 18:33-36 

On the day that the Lord saved Israel, when the Red Sea clapped 
its mighty hands together on the Egyptians, Moses and Israel sang 
this song: 

The Lord is a man of war 

the Lord is his name. 
On the day that Israel fought with Amalek at Rephidim, win- 
ning the victory while Moses's hands were held aloft by Aaron and 
Hur, Moses made a memorial and said: 'The Lord will have war 
with Amalek from generation to generation." 

War was not a problem for ancient Jewish theology. They were 
deemed to be holy wars because they were waged against the 
enemies of God and therefore against the enemies of the chosen 
people of God. Those who sought to hold the people of God in 
bondage, those who stood in their path to the land of promise, and 
those who made war on Israel were considered to be the enemies of 
God. They were consequently to be defeated and punished by the 
only means which seemed to be available, that of battle. In the eyes 
of Israel it was appropriate to sing: 

The Lord is a man of war. 
Match this song against that hallelujah accompaning the birth of 
Jesus Christ and you have a stand off: 

Glory to God in the highest 

and on earth peace and goodwill to men. 
Such a chorus was not completely foreign to the expectations sur- 
rounding the coming of the Messiah. One of the most brilliant and 
mightiest of the prophets, Isaiah, spoke of the child to be born who 


102 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

was to be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting 
Father, and Prince of Peace. 

Christians have often oversimplified the problem of contradic- 
tion which is here. They like to think of the ancient Jew as one who 
had no trouble saying "The battle is Yahweh's" while they think of 
themselves as peace-loving folks. Such a division is too neatly 

Out of such a faith and tradition of Judeo-Christianity, we are 
forced to make up our minds about a defense budget such as is now 
being debated between Congress and the administration. 

History gives the lie to this kind of assumption. Christians have 
participated in, and waged, many wars, believing their cause to be 
just and therefore their war to be holy. That is a cause of some 

It would be comparatively easy to point to the brew in the 
Mideast, that constant battleground between Israel and the Arabs, 
as an example of those who believe that "The Lord is a man of war." 
It would be easy, that is, were it not for the fact that the Catholics 
and Protestants continue to go at one another in Ireland, and the 
Christians are set for battle with the Moslems in Lebanon. 

If these incidents were radical departures from the history of 
"Christian wars," we could treat them as exceptions to the general 
rule. The fact is that Christians have been fighting with the hea- 
then, and with one another, and as Christian nation against infidel 
nations for longer than any of us want to remember. So far as the 
record goes, Christians and "Christian nations" are every bit as 
bellicose as any other kind of people. 

It has become a commonplace for Christians to explain that in so 
doing they have departed from the teachings of Jesus. Consequent- 
ly, they take comfort in the fact that their sins in this regard are 
forgiven because they had to take a practical and immediate action 
under the circumstances. 

Actually only a segment of the Christian community follows this 
kind of thinking. There are many Christians who support the cause 
of war and continue to believe that God is on their side in the battle. 
An inventory of what these Christians believe as over against the 
others is most revealing. 

Those who are not enamored with the pacifist position have an 
attitudinal mix. Their evangelistic motivations are otherworldly in 

Christians and War 103 

nature. This means that they believe the world is sinful and 
doomed. People need to be saved from this world in order that they 
might go to heaven. In a word, they did not affirm this world as one 
of noticeble possibility. 

It might logically be assumed that these Christians, so negative 
in their attitudes about the world, would not think any part of it 
worth fighting for. It does not work out like that. For the most part, 
these Christians did not believe that we should have gotten out of 
Vietnam. They are likely to support President Ford's call for a 
powerful military nation in order that it might stand against the 
possible enemies that may ensue. 

Although such Christians do not believe that the world as a 
whole is worth fighting for, they tend to identify Christianity with 
the United States. They think of this as a Christian nation. It must 
stand if the Gospel is to be preached to all men in order for them to 
be saved. The command to love one's enemy is a command which 
applies to individuals and not to nations. Communism, godless and 
atheistic, is therefore the most tangible enemy, and to destroy com- 
munism with the bomb, or the gas, or the missile, is to do the will of 

It is not too great a stereotype to point out that Christians of these 
persuasions may be listed under the general lable of conservative 
and even fundamentalistic. 

On the other side are believers who affirm the world with enthu- 
siasm and have great hope for its possibilities. They envision the 
realization of the kingdom of God within history and on the earth 
and thus apply themselves to making the world one with the 
kingdom of God. They are less likely to identify their nation with 
the cause of Christ and may be less fervently patriotic than their 
counterparts. They are interested in the elimination of poverty and 
prejudice in the world. 

Although they affirm the world as a whole, they do not so greatly 
affirm any of its parts. Thus they assume that none of its divisions 
are worth fighting for. Since they hope that the world can become 
the kingdom of God, and since they know that the kingdom of God 
will not come by the sword, these people are very much against 
war of any kind. They do not work for a strongly militarized 
nation. They were glad for us to get out of Vietnam. And they want 
to use tax money for the elimination of the causes of war, as they 

104 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

understand them, rather than for defeating an endless line of en- 

I have spoken of these divisions only as they appear in the 
Christian communities. The same divisions seem to exist even 
when they are under the aegis of no religion. This fact compounds 
the problem all the more. On which side are you? On which side do 
you think you ought to be? 

The teachings of Jesus will not prove to be as plentifully helpful 
as one might suppose. Although we call him the Prince of Peace, it 
is not easy to find a sizeable body of definitive teachings about war 
from the life and ministry of Jesus. Our text is fraught with intrigu- 
ing nuances of meaning. After he had reprimanded Simon Peter for 
using the sword at the time of his arrest, Jesus was brought before 
Pilate. Pilate asked him if he were king of the Jews. And Jesus 
replied that his kingdom or kingship was not of this world. If it 
were of this world, Jesus said, "my servants would fight, that I 
might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from 
this world." The implications of this answer are inescapable. The 
core of the answer had to do with the kingdom of God. Since that 
kingdom is not of this world, then the servants of Christ are not to 
fight to establish it. But if it were, then the servants would do battle. 
As John understood Jesus in this setting, the Savior did not exploit 
the situation in order to deliver a sermon on the evils of war and 
force. To the contrary, he envisioned the possibility that were he 
trying to be the worldly ruler that some would have him to be, his 
servants would unsheath their swords and dp battle. The scriptures 
record the sword which Peter used. And they also refer to other 
swords which the disciples were carrying with Jesus's knowledge 
and with apparently his tacit approval, at the time of his arrest. 

We may draw three conclusions, more or less, from this event. 
First of all, Jesus outlawed war as a means of bringing the kingdom 
of God to pass. Furthermore, he was indeed a person of peace and 
every intimation about Christ is one of peace. However, it cannot 
be said that Jesus specifically condemned nations (which were not 
the kingdom of God) in their use of war for their own behalf. He 
did not condemn his ancestry for fighting their way into the Prom- 
ised Land. 

In the second place, the conservatives are right in their generally 
pessimistic view about the future of this world. As it is, it cannot be 

Christians and War 105 

the kingdom of God. Only by radical conversion can it possibly be 
one with the kingdom of God. But they are wrong in trying to 
identify some part of the world, such as our own nation, with the 
Christian cause or with the kingdom. And they are quite confused 
if they believe that the Christian cause may be advanced by war. 
The nation is not to be confused with the church. And to be sure, 
war is not waged by the church. 

The liberals are right in their hope for peace. But they are wrong 
in their optimistic affirmation of the world. Therefore, their blan- 
ket pacifism fails to take into account the fact that some parts of the 
world may be more just and righteous than others, and that there is 
some reason to believe that these nations have a right to assure their 
own perpetuity, even if war is the recourse which has to be used to 
that end. 

In the third place, and most importantly we are once again 
reminded that neither the Christian individual nor the church is 
able to develop an ethic which is either against or for war in every 
circumstance. Jesus has never given us a single teaching by which 
we may always with certainty abide, thus never needing by prayer, 
and scripture, and church, and tradition to examine the will of God 
in given situations. 

Although there are certain guidelines to which we have called 
attention, and there are certain principles about which we should 
have conviction, we cannot make them ultimate. The cause of 
Israel, the cause of the Arabs, the cause of Catholic or Protestant in 
Ireland, the cause of Moslem or Christian in Lebanon must all be 
taken seriously. But it is not within human achievement to know 
for certain. God's will is not mapped out for all generations and 
every person at every time. It is not a blueprint but an experience. 

On Prayer, The Jews, and 
Bailey Smith 

October 5, 1980 
Lev. 26:40-46; Romans 11:1-16 

"God does not hear the prayer of the Jew." So spoke the President 
of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Reverend Mr. Bailey 
Smith, when recently he was in Dallas, Texas, conversing at the 
Roundtable, at which there was gathered a considerable number of 
right wing religiously and politically minded fundamentalists. Let 
us not make more of the matter than reality permits. This was not 
the most earthshaking statement of the century. Many who have 
been outraged by Smith's declaration are certainly not concerned 
with whose prayers God does or does not hear. As they see it, he 
hears no prayers; a dead or nonexistent God can hardly be fitted 
with a live ear. Secularists, if they do take exception to Smith's 
remarks, will be probably concerned for the most part that this 
Baptist preacher has made an un-American statement. 

From a Christian and therefore religious point of view, I should 
like to begin by commending two facets of Smith's premise. We 
should be glad that he has called into question the practice of our 
major political parties in granting equal time for Jewish, Catholic, 
and Protestant prayers at their conventions. This strikes me as an 
attempt to curry votes from the religious people of America rather 
than one designed for securing God's favor. If the religions of the 
East and the third world, the Moonies, Scientologists, and others 
become more populous in membership, we may anticipate a time 
when political conventions will turn into protracted prayer meet- 
ings; they may even have to add another day to their schedule in 
order to give place for hordes of praying preachers. 


108 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

I also concur with Mr. Smith's implication that Christians are not 
honoring their faith when they are forever dumping their distinc- 
tiveness into a mess of ecumenical stew Due to my homiletical 
schedule, this sermon fell on the Sunday when we regularly cele- 
brate the Lord's Supper. My first thought was to postpone one or 
the other. But then it occurred to me that, even as we are taking 
exception to the insult which one of our own has delivered to the 
Jews, we should also be observing a sacrament which is not for 
everyone but only for those who have been baptized into Christ. 
This is to say that the more unapologetically Christian we are, the 
more our love and respect for Jews and others will mean in the long 

The problem before us is a Baptist problem. Make no mistake 
about that. So far as America is concerned, Bailey Smith has spoken 
for the Baptists. We can try to explain, in the light of local church 
autonomy and our cherished tradition of religious freedom, that 
Mr. Smith may speak only for himself. The public is not going to 
buy that explanation. And if we truly believed it, we would not go 
to so much trouble to refute Mr. Smith's statements. 

The president of Southern Baptists, so far as their convention is 
concerned, has misrepresented Baptists to the nation. The matter of 
a public image is involved but the real damage has occurred be- 
cause Mr. Smith has distorted the gospel, which along with other 
Christians we are obligated to proclaim. The only way to get out 
from under his onus, imposed on us without our knowledge or 
consent, is to get rid of Mr. Smith. He should resign. If he will not 
resign, he should be relieved of his presidential duties. At least, he 
should not be elected to a second term. I know that I am probably 
spitting into the wind as I call for these radical remedies. The 
powers that be apparently think to the contrary. The General Board 
of our Baptist State Convention has already neglected to take a cue 
from our Christian Life Commission so as to censure Mr. Smith. Mr. 
Reagan, who went to the Roundtable and said, "You cannot endorse 
me, but I am here to endorse you," has not seen fit to withdraw his 
endorsement of Mr. Smith. President Carter, who called Bailey 
Smith in the wake of the latter 's election, to say, "Congratulations, 
you are now my president," has not to my knowledge called a 
second time to say, "Now you are not my president." Perhaps he 

On Prayer, The Jews, and Bailey Smith 109 

fears that it would go "tit for tat/ 7 each Baptist president saying to 
the other, "You are no longer my boy" 

Even so, I stand on what I have said: Southern Baptists should get 
rid of Mr. Smith by whatever honorable means may avail. 

With Mr. Smith, we should take recourse in the Bible, the "iner- 
rant book" according to the strident and vindictive claims of the 
man, if we are to dispute as Christians and Baptists. 

Let me warn you at the outset that we can find no better proof 
texts for a contrary position than Smith can find for his. The two 
passages read from the pulpit today make evident that God's reac- 
tion to the Jews has always been dynamic rather than static. They 
indicate that up until the time they were written, God had not 
made up his mind about the Jews, and there is every indication that 
this is also the present circumstance. 

Leviticus is but loosely associated with the New Testament if at 
all. It is overloaded with external matters of law and ritual. At the 
same time, it repeats a theme running through the whole con- 
course of Hebrew scripture. God's people have run out on him, are 
running around on him, breaking the convenant and chasing after 
idols. They are called to repentance. If they do not repent, they are 
threatened with exile, threatened with God's intention to turn his 
back upon them. While they are in exile, their own beloved land 
will be forced to enjoy its Sabbaths while lying desolate. But Leviti- 
cus also reads like this, "Yet for all that," says the Lord, "when they 
are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I 
abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant 
with them; for I am the Lord their God; ... I will for their sake 
remember the covenant." 

Paul's letter to the Romans is marked by similar tension. "So I 
ask," he wrote, "have they (the Jews) stumbled so as to fall? By no 
means! But through their trespass salvation has come to the Gen- 
tiles, so as to make Israel jealous." Paul prays that the Jews will 
come to Christ, because "if their rejection means the reconciliation 
of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the 
dead?" Paul believed that the rejection of the Jews turned out to be a 
sacrifice given for the salvation of Gentiles. At the same time, the 
salvation of Gentiles could never be wholly consummated until the 
"full inclusion" of the Jews had taken place. The tension persisted 
in the mind and faith of Paul. 

210 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

If we are to be honest, we must admit that there are literal 
passages in scripture to the effect that God does not hear the pray- 
ers of Israel, therefore of the Jews. We read in Isaiah 59, "Behold, the 
Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, nor his ear dull, 
that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation 
between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from 
you, so that he does not hear." But as might be expected this sound 
of bad news is tempered by the sound of good in Isaiah 65, "Before 
they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear." In 
Isaiah 59, God seems to have had his ear tuned in on the law, but in 
65, his ear was set on grace. 

What is most astonishing about these passages, testifying to 
God's deafness to the pleas of the Jews, is that they are confined to 
the book of the Jews; they do not appear in Christian scripture. 
There is nothing in the latter to support the premise that God does 
not hear the prayers of Jews. Therefore, a Jew has good reason to 
speculate on whether or not God hears his prayers. If Bailey Smith 
were a Jew, he would have been in better position to say what he 
said, but as a Christian he spoke without justification. 

Let me intrigue you all the more. It is obvious that the Old 
Testament passages, filled with the threats of God's deafness, refer 
to those Jews who have broken covenant, disobeyed the law, pur- 
sued idols and false gods, and lived immoral lives. They were not 
going to be heard because they were bad Jews. This realization 
allows for a profound, and perhaps new, interpretation of the par- 
able of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The former was a righ- 
teous Jew, the latter unrighteous. But the prayer of the bad Jew was 
the one answered even to the heights of his exaltation. Was Jesus 
indeed saying in effect, "It is not so that God will not hear the 
prayer of an unrighteous Jew; he will indeed as is offered in this 

I trust that it will not offend the Jew, if I should say that this is 
what a Christian understands about the relationship between God 
and his "first chosen." He understands it because he is a Christian 
and in a way not to be understood by a Jew. Therefore, Mr. Smith 
has distorted the gospel. 

By virtue of his distortion of the gospel, the Reverend Mr. Smith 
has insulted Jews, God, and Christians. He has insulted the Jews by 

On Prayer, The Jews, and Bailey Smith 111 

assuming the role of a "Johnny Jump-up, Johnny Come Lately" 
child of God, who presumes that he has preempted Jews, in their 
favor with God, by favor he has been given through Christ. His 
insult is akin to that which the prodigal son imposed upon the elder 
brother, as he gorged on the fatted calf, before the father could 
persuade his first born to come into the party. But at least, the 
prodigal son had the decency and grace to keep his mouth shut 
except as was necessary for eating. Be reminded that the parable 
ends with the father out in the field, assuring the elder son that 
they have always been together and everything which is his, the 
father's, also belongs to that son. That is a sobering word for Chris- 
tians like Mr. Smith or those who agree with him. 

Mr. Smith has insulted God. He has insulted God by implying 
that God is a liar, that he will go back on his Word, that he has 
broken the very covenant he said he would never forsake. It is not 
God's omnipotence which Smith has called into question. Of 
course, it is true that finite man can neither know or determine 
what prayers God may hear. But the more profound insult is the 
implication that God is not to be trusted. 

Finally, Mr. Smith has insulted his fellow Christians. He has 
delivered himself of a gospel of hate rather than one of grace. I 
know that he has insisted that he loves the Jews. But his remarks 
indicate that God does not love them, else how could he refuse to 
hear their prayers. And I am sure that Jews, as is true with us also, 
are not as concerned with the love of Mr. Smith as they are with the 
love of God. Let it be admitted that any gospel capitalizes on the 
fears of people, their fears for themselves in this world and the 
next. But the gospel of grace banks on the promise that "perfect love 
casts out fear" because "there is no fear in love." Another gospel, a 
false one to be sure, capitalizes on the people's fears by assuring 
them that they may expect a blessing from God which he will 
withhold from anyone who is not like them. There are still scars 
across the countenance of Europe, because frightened people took 
courage from a gospel of hate, which promised them the superior- 
ity of the pure and caused them to reduce uncounted Jews to ashes. 
One need never use the word as such, but the gospel is one of hate 
whenever it calls God away from others so that we may enjoy his 
full and undivided attention and grace. 

112 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

In all of this, I am not going to hate Smith in order to prove my 
love for the Jews; I am not about to say that because of what Mr. 
Smith has done, God will not hear his prayers. I do hope that he is 
praying even more than usual during these days. But the gospel 
tells me that, even if he is not doing so, God has forgiven him 
already in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Gratitude Is a Decision 

November 18, 1973 
Psalm 122; Col. 3:12-17 

Thanksgiving is an authentic characteristic of the Christian faith. 
If it is not the most significant of all, it assuredly gives every rival a 
run for the money. I know of no theologian who would contradict 
this general position. Disagreement sets in with regard to a related 
matter, which is almost as fundamental as the first. Whether grati- 
tude is spontaneous and therefore cannot be commanded or wheth- 
er it is a decision in obedience to a command will seldom go 
wanting for an argument. 

I was surprised to read one scholar's commentary, dealing as it 
did with both of our scripture passages, yet stating that exhorta- 
tions such as these to be grateful were strange because "gratitude 
cannot be commanded, but must spring spontaneously from the 

The other position beckons most to me. For the most part, grati- 
tude is a matter of the will. One usually decides whether or not to 
be grateful. Although this does not completely rule out the sponta- 
neity of gratitude, it does assert that we must be grateful — and can 
be — even when the conditions favoring spontaneous thanksgiv- 
ing do not prevail. 

In other words, in most of those times when we are not grateful, 
we ought to be and are indeed commanded to be. Even when the 
blessing count does not add up to gratitude, the decision to be 
grateful is still a live one. 

Our founding fathers apparently recognized this reality. They set 
aside a day to be thankful. Although Thanksgiving Day is not a 
part of the Christian calendar, its theme of calling for gratitude is 


114 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

very much in harmony with the religious position. Religion not 
only encourages thanksgiving but also enjoins it. 

In this vein the pilgrim author expressed gladness that he was 
invited to go to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. And he went to 
the holy city because the Lord had decreed that the tribes of Israel 
were to do so. Furthermore, the central purpose of the pilgrimage 
was to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 

Psalm 122 testifies that an integral part of the Judeo-Christian 
discipline was that of gratitude. The pilgrims had their reasons for 
going to Jerusalem. One of their motivations was that of giving 
thanks. And they decided beforehand that they would give thanks 
in the temple of the city of God. 

The years have not changed the concept. Gratitude remains a 
part of our religious discipline. Even when spontaneous gratitude 
is highly unlikely it is our discipline to come to this place on the 
Lord's day and to give thanks. Among others, this is a good and 
sufficient reason to contend that gratitude is a decision. 

A vision of the author of the Book of Revelation seems to strike a 
blow for spontaneous thanksgiving. He saw the angels, elders, and 
strange creatures gathered before the throne and saying: 

"Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor 
and power and might be to our God forever and ever 


But when the question was raised as to what had occasioned so 
great an outburst of praise, the answer indicated that there were 
reasons for the decision to be grateful. The thanksgivers had been 
brought through great tribulation. Their robes had been washed to 
whiteness in the blood of the Lamb. And they were to be guided by 
the lamb to springs of living water and God was to wipe away 
every tear from their eyes. 

"And whatever you do," was Paul's words to the Colossians, "in 
words or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving 
thanks to God the Father through Him." 

Surely, it comes down to this in a time like this, when the cause 
for thanksgiving is not all that apparent, when occasion for sponta- 
neous thanksgiving is rare indeed, surely gratitude is then depen- 
dent upon the decision of the faithful — to be or not to be thankful. 

We need this caution. If we agree that gratitude is more volitional 
than it is emotional, if it is more deliberate than spontaneous, then 

Gratitude Is a Decision 115 

one will be forced to ask and answer the question — not once but 
many times — "Why should I decide to be grateful?" 

The decision to be so seems often to be arbitrary. It works out to 
being thankful no matter what. As a general rule, we might assume 
that one must decide to be grateful when he is hard put to find 
sufficient and evident reasons for being so. This is not always the 
case. The same arbitrariness must sometimes operate when there 
are abundant reasons for gratitude but the majority of the blessed 
do not choose to be so. 

Luke has a terse account of ten lepers. It is told with tough irony. 
The ten asked Jesus for mercy. He told them to go show themselves 
to the priests. Show themselves, I suppose, with their eroded bodies 
and faces half eaten away, to the same kind of priest who passed on 
the other side when the man beset by thieves was lying in the 
ditch. As it turned out they did not have to suffer that kind of 
embarrassment and ignominy. Even as they went their way to the 
priest they were cleansed and healed. Whatever happened to nine 
of them is not told. Did they go on to the priests anyway? We do not 
know. One returned and threw himself at the feet of Jesus in 
gratitude. He was a Samaritan. What grand and awful music Luke, 
most of all, played about priests and Samaritans. 

Jesus could not help but wonder why all but this foreigner went 
on their way without deciding to give thanks. In any event, the 
story serves our premise very well indeed. It clearly indicates that 
gratitude is a decision not only when the conditions are not favor- 
able but even when they are. 

"Ingratitude is sin," thundered Karl Barth. Let us elaborate. In- 
gratitude is sin precisely because gratitude is both a confession of 
sin and faith. Ingratitude is sin precisely because it denies rather 
than confesses sin and thus precludes any confession of faith. 

To be ungrateful is either to assume that one deserves the good he 
receives or is shortchanged when he does not get all that he con- 
tends is his desert or is unjust when life caves in on him. 

Gratitude is a way of putting oneself in one's place before God: 
dependent upon the grace of God and waiting for his bounty all the 
while confessing that our earning power with respect to life's "goo- 
dies" can purchase little or nothing. 

The decision to be grateful also opens our eyes to blessings to 
which ingratitude always blinds us with sightlessness. This is to 

116 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

wager that gratitude quite often must precede its own reasons and 
that when it does, the reasons for thanksgiving are much more 
evident. We are so busy worrying about having to turn down our 
thermostats. If we decided to be grateful to God regardless, it might 
occur to us that we are indeed fortunate to have thermostats to run 
back to sixty-eight or sixty-five or whatever. It may even make us 
mindful of those people who will be lucky if they can ever get the 
heat up to sixty-five in their open, cracked houses. Let that be no 
cause for gratitude; simply let gratitude open one's eyes to the fact 
that he has a thermostat and others do not. 

The decision to be grateful in such a context is a most dynamic 
factor in Christian experience. If I cannot enjoy what I have even 
when another does not have it, I deny the grace of God to me and 
cancel out gratitude and that is sin. In other words, to be so re- 
morseful over the disadvantage of others so as to be unable to 
celebrate one's own sense of God's grace is to commit the sin of 

By the same token, to shrug off the despair of others by assum- 
ing, "there but for the grace of God go I" is to decide that God's grace 
is selective. This really is not a testimony to grace because we 
cannot help but believe that such selective grace is the better part of 
wisdom on God's part. What is called for is to rejoice in God's grace 
on the one hand, never drawing odious comparisons so far as that 
grace is concerned, and in gratitude rejoicing in God's gifts, yet all 
the while being moved by that same gratitude to care for our 
brother by seeing that he also has a thermostat or a turkey, or 
whatever, even if it means that we must give him ours. 

The decision to be grateful is a decision to become salt and light. 
Gratitude not only opens our eyes to newfound blessings but it 
gives us light by which the blessings of God are revealed to others. 
Those of us old enough to remember gasoline rationing during the 
Second World War remember how much fun it was to use the 
gasoline allotted to go see someone you really wanted to see. In that 
case both the visitor and the visited were blessed by the reciprocal 
affirmation. Persons, things, and places that were authentic trea- 
sures were still within reach. The valuable and the dear were en- 

Should we follow suit with other countries which have either 

Gratitude Is a Decision 117 

banned gasoline powered travel on the weekends or at least the sale 
of gasoline, the church would be faced with a struggle. But the 
struggle would not be futile. Perhaps we would walk or have house 
churches or use some other alternative. In any event, what the 
church then would mean to some of us would salt and season 
humanity with a good taste for the church. 

In a real sense the matter is one of decision. The question is not, 
can you be grateful? but will you be grateful? The low state of 
society and history at the present may convince us that we have as 
many reasons for not being as there are reasons for being grateful. 

But should we in faith decide to give thanks to God and thanks 
for God, and thanks for Christ and his redemption; then the 
chances are that we shall find the hidden reasons for such grati- 
tude. Even if such reasons are a long time in coming to be seen, we 
can still give thanks that we are able to be grateful, which is the 
evidence of our faith and the hope that we have now and when- 


May 13, 1979 
Jeremiah 31:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-13 

Is Ralph Nader trying to be my mother? Or Joseph Califano my 
stepmother — the difference being that Mr. Califano treats all 
North Carolinians like stepchildren? Or is it only my imagination, 
which makes me suspect those two, among a plenty who sound 
and act like my mother as they cluck their warnings and spread 
their sheltering wings? 

It has been quite some time since I have mentioned mother or 
motherhood on a "Mother's Day Sunday." And I have felt justified 
in refraining from doing so, because of the day's corruption from 
commercialism, it's being iced over with sentimental goo, and my 
own desire to be that kind of sophisticated minister who keeps up 
with the times. 

But as of now, I am convinced that whatever the time, it necessi- 
tates a new look at mother. There is the saying, based on our 
instinctive religious nature, that if there was no God we would 
eventually invent one. May we not draw an analogy and say given 
our instinctive childlikeness, that if there were no mothers, no 
institution of motherhood, we would inevitably invent either or 

Nader and Califano seem to be proving that assumption. Al- 
though I have some reservations about these two gentlemen, I cast 
no aspersions on them for trying to mother the nation and its 
people; they are the products of our invention. It may be that 
necessity is not only the mother of invention but that necessity also 
demands the invention of mother. I am consequently no longer 
disposed to disparage the practice of mothering but rather to con- 


120 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

tend that if mothering is essential, we would be better served by 
the real thing than by Nader and Califano. 

To put it bluntly we need mothers. We need mothers to bear and 
issue children, we need them for the children that are issued, 
students need mothering educational institutions, and people need 
mothering churches, perhaps parishioners need mothering clergy- 
men. And I dare say, that in whatever cases it seems necessary for 
men to do the mothering, their effectiveness in this regard will 
largely depend on their having learned how to mother from wom- 
en. One of the reasons for my conviction in this regard is due to my 
realization that women have those kinds of maternal instincts, 
whether or not they have ever been married or borne children, 
which equip them for the mothering of humanity. Among some of 
my most cherished experiences have been my knowledge of and 
friendship with unmarried and childless women who have 
reached out to mother a community, an institution, or whatever, 
with an incredibly gracious wisdom. Therefore, I am sure that 
mothers ought to be women and when this is impossible mother- 
ing men must learn their trade from women. 

I cannot spend the time arguing for the recovery of motherhood. 
I will simply dogmatize and declare that those who have never 
found it necessary to cut the apron strings are far worse off for not 
having gone through the experience. Those who have never had to 
deal with caring, coaxing, chiding mothers are those who need to 
be mothered most in their adult years. I agree with William Willi- 
mon that the children of the typical "Jewish mother" and of her 
kind, among whatever religion or race, were given something to 
live for as the mother stood "over the piano mercilessly coaxing a 
budding prodigy or arguing at the kitchen table over how many 
green beans were enough. While their methods of child-rearing 
may have spawned some neuroses, their children never suffered 
from the anger, emptiness, and despair that often haunt children 
denied the lifelong benefits of strong, early, and continuing affec- 
tional bonds." 

If you agree that we need to revisit the whole question of mother, 
I must warn you that so long as society continues to treat mothers as 
second class citizens, by virtue of the fact that they are women, our 
hopes and aspirations for the recovery of mother will probably not 

Mother? 121 

be fulfilled. Because of the strong connection between being wom- 
en and being mothers, a culture which denigrates women also 
denigrates mothers. 

By way of illustration, let me say in my own behalf that I have 
often been misunderstood when I have discouraged women, and 
some of you have received such discouragement, from asking that 
they be treated like persons instead of women or at least treated like 
persons before being treated like women. One of the reasons for my 
being misunderstood is my own fault: I tend to quip facetiously 
when encountering pain, and often do not speak to the pain as 
forthrightly as I should. So let me state it now and speak to it in 
such a way as to be understood. Whenever I hear a woman say that 
she prefers to be treated like a person instead of a woman, I feel 
pain as I wonder what in God's name this generation has done to 
women. If we have made it necessary for women to distinguish 
between being a person and a female, we have done them a grave 
injustice. By definition a person is a human being as distinguished 
from an animal or a thing. So if women are forced to distinguish 
between being a person or a female, they are saying in effect that 
we have treated them like things. Is it any wonder that they do not 
wish to be identified as women or mothers? It is beyond my com- 
prehension that we have made mothers think of themselves as 
things, but this is precisely what seems to have occurred. 

If my assessment is correct, motherhood can only be revisited 
when the woman's movement has enjoyed success. Society must 
not continue to skew the issue by seeing "woman's liberation" as 
something antithetical to being mother. I am sure that many pul- 
pits today are being filled with this misguided opinion. Let us quit 
trying simply to get women back into the home. All mothers are 
working mothers, in or outside the home. The issue is that they be 
mothers, respected, admired, as persons to be sure but also as 
women and mothers. 

Another barrier to the recovery of motherhood is our desire to 
keep up with the times. Some of us believe that mother was once 
essential to our culture but that times have changed so that this is 
no longer the case. We think we have left such primitivism behind. 
Our culture, because of its consistent commitment to the ideal, 
tends to believe that the new is always superior to the old. Ideals in 

122 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

modern society are goal oriented, which means that the past and 
the present can never be as good as the future. 

It is here that the church has a perspective not shared by secular 
society. Its perspective is not only basic to giving motherhood its 
due but also provides a corrective on the misinterpretation of time. 
That perspective is one of eternity, meaning that past, present and 
future may be viewed in wholeness. 

I selected the passage from Jeremiah in order to present this 
perspective. The Lord said, "I will be the god of all the families of 
Israel. I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore, I have 
continued my faithfulness to you." And then this key word, thrice 
stated: "Again I will build you — Again you shall go forth in the 
dance of merrymakers — Again you shall plant vineyards upon the 
mountains of Samaria/' 

Israel has always seen her future in terms of the recovery of the 
past. Do you not find it instructive that Israel has progressed faster 
than any of her neighboring nations with this kind of "backward 
look," which is of course not a backward look, but an eternal vision? 

The writer to the Ephesians speaks of God's mystery hidden in 
the ages, which the church is given power to explain, even to the 
point at which "through the church the manifold wisdom of God 
might be made known." The writer was not thinking of mother 
when writing these words, but they do apply. 

Mother is no less indispensable to today than she was yesterday. 
Her role and her gifts cannot be set to the passing of time. Today's 
mother is neither better or worse than the one of yesterday. 

Despite the obvious chauvinistic themes in scriptures, those 
themes are not as one-sided as we might suppose. Jesus taught us to 
think of God as Father. That is chauvinistic only if we think that 
Jesus was trying to get us to think of God as masculine or as man. 
What if he was more concerned to say that God was a parent and we 
were his children? In other words, we are probably enjoined to 
think of God as Daddy, with masculinity being secondary to the 
conception of God as parent. 

And I would remind you that this same Jesus when brooding 
over the dismal future of Jerusalem, said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, 
how often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her brood 
under her wings, but you would not." Jesus saw the city as an 
adolescent rebelling against its mother and saw himself in mater- 

Mother? 123 

nalistic terms. And there can be no doubt but that he meant that 
God was also like this. 

I have discovered that the minister not only needs to father but 
also to mother, and that the church has to be a mothering institu- 
tion. As a matter of fact, most successful families have wives who 
mother the entire family, including husbands. I have watched the 
demise of in loco parentis on this campus with great regret because 
students are not beyond their need of mothering. And instead of 
graduating students who have learned how already to cut the 
strings, we send them forth to a mothering government, which is 
the least likely because she is a woman with too much authority. 

Willimon speaks of his grandmother-in-law, a Methodist minis- 
ter, who took an incorrigible parish in South Carolina. When, for 
the first time, she was dealing with her people regarding the bud- 
get for the coming year, all went well until the consideration of a 
pledge to the Black College Fund. Then the chairman of the admin- 
istration board said, "We ain't going to pay for no niggers to go to 
college. That's the way we are." And Bessie, the minister replied, 
"Tom, that's not nice. That is definitely not the way you are. You all 
can do better than that." And then, I would say not surprisingly 
under the circumstances, Tom sat down, said he was sorry, and 
recommended paying the total pledge. 

That was a prophet speaking to Tom. But more than a prophet, a 
"mama prophet" in a "mama church." And the argument was not 
by recourse to scripture, nor on the basis of moral and ethical 
righteousness. Bessie told Tom that he was not a nice boy to act the 
way he did. It was this that Tom could not handle and to which he 

And now will you permit me to speak of my own mother. She 
died too soon. But not before I discovered this much. She was not 
always right, but she always cared. The strength by which she 
protected me from danger was the strength against which I re- 
belled. But she gave me something to rebel against. And I thank 
God that I did not always win my rebellious battles. I doubt that Mr. 
Califano will ever make me give up my pipe. But if mother were 
around, it might be a different matter. She would not mention my 
health; she would probably say, "Nice ministers don't smoke." And 
despite the fact that her opinion was not quite right, it would give 
me problems. 

A Decalogue of Manifestoes 

May 28, 1972 
Romans 7:4-12; Proverbs 28:1-9 

Since graduation time inevitably plays on the theme of "going 
out into the world;" it is fitting that we should use the day to 
address the stubborn problem of how the Christian is to live in that 
world. How to be in the world and not of it is such a sticky wicket as 
to make us sometimes wish that John's Gospel had not introduced 
the idea. How to be separately and distinctively Christian without 
completely jeopardizing our relationships with people of other 
faiths or of no faith at all has not yet become a major accomplish- 
ment of contemporary Christians. The problem of being effectively 
Christian in the world promises to be with us for a long time to 

Two fairly recent conversations have provoked my attention in 
this respect. One was with a coed who seemed particularly anxious 
to convince herself that Christianity was neither greatly different 
from nor superior to other world religions. As a part of her argu- 
ment she told us of a Buddhist acquaintance. After extolling a 
number of her friend's virtues, she concluded, "He is just as Chris- 
tian in many respects as are so many of us who are in the church." It 
seemed to me that, in an effort to be very tolerant, she achieved the 
opposite result. Those characteristics of the Buddhist which elicited 
her admiration were assigned to Christian causes. She did not 
recognize that his virtues could have come from his being a good 
Buddhist rather than because of Christian influence. This kind of 
tolerance, filled with the best of intentions, inevitably turns out to 
be intolerance. If a Christian is to be open and honest with respect 
to other religions, he ought to give those religions due credit for 


126 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

whatever virtues show up in their adherents. What is good in a 
Buddhist should be acknowledged as the result of good Buddhist 
religion rather than being ascribed to inadvertent Christian influ- 

Another conversation occurred with a professor. On the one 
hand, he expressed the wish that the church would continue to 
participate meaningfully in society. He suggested that culture need- 
ed the rich diversity that was forthcoming from the moral and 
ethical insights of Christianity. On the other hand, he was asking 
for an emasculated Christianity. For he said, "But I do wish that we 
could be rid of Christianity's spooks." By such expression, he was 
ruling out the dimension of the supernatural, the category of the 
miraculous, and Christian devotion to the incarnate presence of- 
God in the world. 

The two conversations combine to highlight the problem. The 
coed was opting for a kind of Christianity that might show up 
anywhere even in other religions. The professor was opting for a 
Christianity, the distinctives of which would be left back at the 
church, whenever its advocates took up their burdens in the secular 
world. Both were designed to suggest that Christianity was not 
distinctive and should never try to be. 

The number one temptation -for Christians today, if and when 
they wish to practice servanthood in the world, is to become a good 
human being, nothing more or less, as a result of one's Christian 
faith. And it presupposes that the great themes of Christian doc- 
trine are superfluous to one's becoming a good human being. 

Enough of my colleagues, many of them dear and personal 
friends, have followed this Pied Piper's tune into the relevance of 
what they judged to be a wider ministry so as to convince me that 
the temptation is well nigh overwhelming. The central factors of 
the faith have been discarded as appendages to the good life. If a 
Christian turns out to be a good human being, practicing his ser- 
vanthood in the world, it is not even interpreted as a result of his 
having been an authentic Christian. It may even mean that it is the 
result of his having sloughed off the Christian superfluities. 

Way back when — when secularism was first flexing its muscles 
in full view of the church — Elton Trueblood warned us against a 
cut-flower Christianity. He gloomily predicted what would happen 
when the faith was separated from its roots. It would have to find a 

A Decalogue of Manifestoes 127 

different garden in which to acquire new life. So now it would seem 
to be searching for that life in the tolerance of the secular society. 
Thus we have come to what Martin Marty has called the time of 
religion in general. 

This suggests that Christians are going to have to define their 
mission to the world on their own terms rather than on the world's 
terms. That will mean that the world will have to take the Christian 
as he is rather than the "despooked" model that it not only tolerates 
but seems to want. 

We are under mandate to deliver a manifesto to the culture. Such 
a mandate or law will serve the purpose to which Paul assigned the 
law. Without the law we will not know that we have sinned. 
Without specific mandate, we will not be conscious that we are 
watering a cut-flower Christianity, which no amount of nurture 
can save because it is separated from its roots. 

Perhaps we must be ready to recover the rugged distinction 
which crops up in the proverb: Those who forsake the law praise 
the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them. 

I must contend against all contrary opinions that the sense of this 
mandate is not for the sake of the church but for the sake of the 
world. It is not for the purpose of keeping Christianity pure but for 
the purpose of offering the world a Christian service which it will 
not otherwise enjoy. 

To make this claim without validating it would be foolish. There 
must not be greater claims than can be authenticated. The distinc- 
tions between the deeds of a secularist and of a Christian when 
engaged in common efforts are neither vividly apparent nor great 
in number. But there are some distinctions which are important. Let 
me mention three of them. 

In the very first place, a Christian does not work in the world to 
save the world or himself. Jesus Christ has already accomplished 
that salvation in his life and work. When it becomes apparent that 
the Christian is not therefore frantically trying to assure salvation 
by his good deeds, indeed that no man has to set himself to that 
task, the question is bound to surface: "Then why be good? Why 
work at the back breaking task of cleaning up the world's mess?" 

The Christian is then free to answer that he does so in obedience 
to God. He does not work for the world because it depends on his 
offering. He does not work for the world because, as a Christian, he 

128 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

has become a good man. He is working in obedience to God. Such 
obedience sets him free to do what he must without being subject to 
a myriad of other considerations. And the world desperately needs 
men who are free in this sense. It needs men who do not look for 
other justifications of what they do other than as men obedient to 

In the second place, Christians, who work as Christians in order 
to make the world a better place in which to live, pour into culture a 
model of unselfish love. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, ". . . as 
it is they (Christians) desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. 
Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has 
prepared for them a city." 

It does not matter that secular man cannot accept this view of 
history. He cannot, whatever his doctrines of history may be, re- 
main impervious to those Christians at work in the world which is 
not their final destination, which is not their home or their city. In 
brief, secular man's service to the world can never rise above the 
level of enlightened self-interest. He is trying to improve and possi- 
bly save the only world he knows and the only world he thinks he 
has. But the world is too powerfully entrenched in the evil of its 
own making to be cured by enlightened self-interest. Perhaps the 
Christian, who serves it without such motives, is best equipped to 
deal with it and to bring it to heel before the power of God. 

In the third place, the Christian who works in the world — 
always in the name of Jesus and never sloughing off that testimoni- 
al — can be the only effective intercessor for the society he serves. 
Remember that foreboding caution in Matthew 10: "Every one who 
acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my 
Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also 
will deny before my Father who is in heaven." The unexamined 
assumption that this refers only to loyalty to Christ when under 
duress and persecution needs greater examination. To be sure, we 
must acknowledge that this note is there. However, these words 
come at the end of a chapter dealing with the sending out of the 
twelve on a mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It has to 
do with proclaiming the advent of the kingdom of God. Jesus knew 
that the disciples would suffer rejection and persecution. And he 
must have been anticipating defection as a result. But he cautioned 

A Decalogue of Manifestoes 129 

that if one denied him to those who rejected the gospel, the gospel- 
er could not intercede for those who had rejected it. 

What does the servant of the world do when the world rejects His 
servanthood? He does nothing but wring his hands unless he has 
recourse to power that the world does not know. The Christian is 
empowered to bring the world to God in worship and in prayer, to 
intercede for the fallen world. But it is the prayers of a righteous 
man which avail. One who has denied the Christ or been silent 
about him is in no position to make that kind of righteous interces- 
sion. Praying for the world here and now is the plus which those 
who only serve the world out there cannot accomplish. 

If these are good and sufficient indications of the difference 
between Christian servanthood and that which is not Christian, let 
us then decide on a manifesto of our servanthood with which we 
will work in the world. Let it be to us a mandate, a modern deca- 
logue of manifestoes. 

As it was before, our modern decalogue accentuates the negative 
rather than the positive. For any man is freer if he must obey 
negative mandates rather than positive ones. When one is told 
what to do, that is the only recourse he has. When he is told what 
not to do, every other option is open to him except for that single 
restriction. So our law does not bind the Christian overly much. It 
becomes the level of his conscience to set over against the level of 
tolerance by which the world is willing to accept him. In other 
words, let us say that we will serve the world under these condi- 
tions. For without these conditions, it is not possible for us to serve 
it in any meaningful way. 

Here is our manifesto: 

Thou shalt not substitute love for the Lord Thy God. It is he who 
has called us to mission. We love because he first loved us. Thou 
shalt not substitute Professor Jesus for the Lord and Savior, Jesus 
Christ. The world is not redeemed by its knowledge but by the 
saving work of Jesus Christ. 

Thou shalt not judge God by what is good but judge goodness by 
the measure of God. For only God is good. 

Thou shalt not call attention to your virtue but call attention to 
your faith. It is better for the world to know the gospel than for it to 
know good men. 

130 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Thou shalt not urge a person to take Christ into his heart but call 
him to be in Christ. The body of Christ, which is the church, is 
more constant and trustworthy than the human heart. 

Thou shalt not wait for the world to involve you but shall go in 
mission as one sent from God. 

Thou shalt not forsake the relevance of the gospel for human 
speculations about the needs of the world. 

Thou shalt not relinquish the fatherhood of God in a world 
"come of age." It is a boastful adolescent rebelling against the father. 
Rejoice that you have been given power to become the children of 

Thou shalt not commit the Word to instincts and feelings but 
shall give it substance in language and deed. 

Thou shalt not envy the person who is doing his own thing, for 
you have been called to do the will of God through Christ who is 

Words From An Angry 
Bible Believer 

June 15, 1980 
Isaiah 55:1-9; Philippians 3:2-16 

Forget that sermon title you see in the bulletin. I am much too 
angry to think, much less preach, about it. If you must have a title, 
you may call this sermon, "Words From an Angry Bible-Believer." 
However, for reasons which are beyond me, I have found no neces- 
sity for changing my scripture selections. I believe they authenti- 
cate the sermon. 

As to my anger, I am angry enough to hope that as few people as 
possible are aware that I have even had anything to do with the 
Southern Baptist Convention or the National Council of Churches. 
That certainly covers a lot of ground between two extremes. But my 
ire is directed at both of them, because each body, in its own way, 
has wrested the Bible from the Church and exploited it for the 
purposes of each organization. 

This week the Southern Baptist Convention has passed a resolu- 
tion declaring the Bible to be inerrant and urging that no person 
shall be employed on the faculty of our seminaries who does not 
believe in the doctrine of inerrancy. So it is that the Southern 
Baptist Convention has determined what is the word of God by a 
majority vote of its registered messengers and others who may 
have sneaked in. 

This past week the National Council of Churches has called for 
yet another revision of the Bible, but this time with a mind to 
removing all so-called sexist language from its pages without re- 
gard, it may be supposed, for the text. 


132 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

However far apart these two bodies may be in their theology, 
they are as one with a common purpose. They mean to exploit the 
Bible for their own purpose instead of for the glory of God, the 
teaching of the church, and the proclamation of the Gospel. In 
other words, inerrancy and feminism are their concerns more than 
the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I do not wish to spend too much time arguing the case against 
either of them. However, in order to give some credibility to my 
position, it is necessary for me first to ask the latest Southern Baptist 
Convention the question: Who killed Goliath? We are familiar with 
I Samuel's account, in the seventeenth chapter, which tells us that 
David did it with his sling shot. But II Samuel 21:19 reads, "And 
there was again war with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan the 
son of Jaareoregim, slew Goliath the Gittite." Then I Chronicles 20:5 
reads, "And there was again war with the Philistines; and Elhanan 
the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite/' To add 
to our confusion, both II Samuel and I Chronicles tell us that 
Elhanan was neither the son of Jair or Jaareoregim but of Dodo of 

If by any chance you are not tired of the question who killed 
Goliath? please permit me to ask you another, What people in 
Winston-Salem are consistently engaged in defying the prophecy 
of Joel? Now, we can answer this second question with more alacri- 
ty and greater assurance. The answer is every travel agency which 
organizes tours to Jerusalem. It is in the prophecy of Joel that no 
stranger shall ever pass through Jerusalem after his prophecy has 
been made: 

So you shall know that I am the Lord your God 

who dwell in Zion, my holy mountain. 

And Jerusalem shall be holy 

and strangers shall never pass through it again. 

Enough of the case. What is apparent is that the scriptures we 
have now are not inerrant and without mistake. Furthermore, if the 
inerrancy of the scripture is as indispensable as the Southern Bap- 
tist Convention claims it to be, one of two things must be assumed. 
Either God loved the original authors of the scriptures more than 
he does later translators and therefore gave them the Bible in such a 
way as to make it impossible for them to make a mistake, or the 
matter just got out of his hands. It may also be supposed that if God 

Words From An Angry Bible Believer 133 

wanted the Bible to be inerrant, as once it supposedly was, he has 
more than a gaggle of brilliant Southern Baptist fundamentalists 
who would be more than happy to write an inerrant Bible if he 
would only give the word. 

But enough of Southern Baptists for the moment, let us look to 
that enlightened group, the National Council of Churches. The 
National Council wants to remove sexist language from the scrip- 
tures because such language is offensive and discriminatory. If the 
National Council gets its way, we shall be praying "Our parent, 
who are in heaven" and "in the name of the Parent, Child, and Holy 
Neuter. I think I would prefer to pray in the name of Mother, 
Daughter and Holy Spirit, than in the name of Parent, Child, and 
Holy It. Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi will read, "You are 
the Christ, the child of the living Parent," making us wonder which 
one died, and Jesus will reply, "My parent has revealed this to you." 

Now if the so-called sexist language in the scripture was intend- 
ed to discriminate against women and to be used to their disadvan- 
tage, would it not be reasonable to suppose that the Devil or Satan 
would be referred to as she and her? This is not the case. Without 
exception so far as I have been able to determine, the personal 
pronoun for Satan and Devil is masculine. 

God is known as Father in the Old and the New Testament. But it 
was Jesus, who was a man, who was a son of someone, who is 
known as the son of Mary, who called God Father. And we may 
suppose that among the reasons that Jesus called God Father is to 
make the same point that the writers of scripture were making 
when they wrote of the Virgin Birth, which was not a testimony to 
a biological miracle but to the fact that God, rather than Joseph, was 
the Father of Jesus Christ. 

It is also to be understood that since we are created male or 
female, then the incarnation had to be in one sex or the other. Since 
the incarnation took the form of the male, it is not strained for Jesus 
to be the Son and God to be Father. 

I am now prepared to call upon the Southern Baptist Convention 
and the National Council of Churches to give the Bible back to the 
church, particularly in its local and congregational nature, where 
preaching is done and worship practiced. The Southern Baptist 
Convention, a three day meeting of vacationers, heresy hunters, 
power brokers, little preachers trying to brush against the big boys, 

134 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

all together making up a religious mob, is simply not competent to 
discuss the Bible, to determine its nature, to interpret it, or to 
proclaim it. 

I am sure that the national Council of Churches is more delibera- 
tive than the Southern Baptist Convention, but it too is disqualified 
on more than one count as being a competent body by which to 
deal with scripture. 

Both of these bodies have portrayed a lack of reverence for the 
scriptures and are seemingly not in agreement with the probability 
that the ways and thoughts of God are higher than the ways and 
thoughts of men. And they are not willing to believe that the word 
which goes forth from the mouth of God, shall not return unto him 
empty but shall accomplish that which He purposes for it and that 
it will prosper in the thing for which it was sent. They are deciding 
what that word shall be, what it shall accomplish and where and 
how it will prosper. 

Against that kind of arrogance I take personal exception and 
accuse the convention and the council of insulting me both as a 
person and regarding my profession. I am insulted as a person 
because I believe, with Edwin Lewis, who was writing back in the 
'50's, that "it is no light thing to be set aside as a preacher of the 
Word and to accept the responsibility of being an interpreter of God 
to men." The suggestion that since I do not believe in inerrancy and 
the suggestion that since I do not take exception to the masculine 
pronoun for God, made by the convention and council, that I am 
thereby either unfit for ministry in the convention's eyes or remiss 
in ministry in the council's eyes strike me as personal insults. 

I am professionally insulted because these bodies are doing what 
is best and most appropriately done in the church at worship, 
between the congregation and its preacher. 

Edwin Lewis has written, "The Bible is the most important pos- 
session of the church, more important even than all of its vast 
material resources combined." I believe this to be the case. 

It is with some hesitation, for fear of being misunderstood, that I 
also believe with Lewis, I cannot believe otherwise and be a respon- 
sible man, that the "preacher, as the interpreter of the Bible, is the 
most important figure in the Christian Church." 

And most importantly I believe with Lewis that the "interpreter- 
preacher and the Bible are not to be separated." They are the mutua- 

Words From An Angry Bible Believer 135 

lities of the Church. Now let it therefore be said and settled for that 
the truth about the Bible is more likely to be said and heard when it 
is preached from a pulpit, addressing a people with God's word for 
their lives. This is not to abjure the value of scholarship nor its great 
contribution to the understanding of the Bible, but I find it unset- 
tling that so many young seminarians, just out of school, are so 
intimidated by what their professors have said about one text or 
another that they are not free to preach from scripture as they 
should be. This is not so much the fault of the professor as it is the 
preacher. And I am afraid that in most cases this is true of the 
preacher because he or she would rather be a professor. 

This is not the case for me. I am glad to be what I am, a preacher, a 
Bible-believer, seeking to proclaim the Word in faithfulness to the 
scripture. And I not only believe that the preacher is best qualified 
to do this, I believe that you as a worshipping congregation is best 
prepared to know whether or not the gospel is being proclaimed. 

Now you may not know the difference between a chiasmus and 
a keyhole. You may think that hermeneutics is the practice or the 
study of hermitism. And you may be badly lacking in skill with 
Greek or Hebrew, but when you worship and the word is opened to 
you the the Spirit does its work, then you may rest assured that you 
will be the best recognizer of the Word. 

So I say again, the Bible must be returned to the church, and if 
not returned by such councils and conventions which have stolen 
it away, it must be wrested from such bodies by the means which 
God allows. 

The doctrine of inerrancy is garbage, but unlike Paul, the South- 
ern Baptist Convention does not know itself as he did. He was a 
Pharisee, a Hebrew of Hebrews, blameless before the law. And he 
said, this I treat as refuse for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ as 
Lord. Now so many of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Conven- 
tions are Pharisees, they are Baptists of the Baptists, and they are so 
right in their own eyes about so many things. And this they cling 
to, pridefully calling their brethren unbelievers and unfit because 
they do not agree with the self-righteousness. They do not even 
know how much garbage they treasure which keeps them from 
putting the knowledge of Christ central in their lives. And I must 
say the same for the doctrines of feminism. If they are put above the 
knowledge of Christ, if this is secondary to cause of feminism, then 

136 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

the cause of feminism is garbage, and the National Council of 
Churches is trafficking in garbage. 

So I would covenant with you that we will spend some time and 
effort, and most of all much faith, in regaining the Bible for the 
church and its pulpit. What this will cost us in the days ahead is not 
yet clear, but whatever it costs it must be done. For conventions and 
councils, without any question, are now convinced that they are 
God's special people to the world. They are not churches, but they 
purport to be churches. They are not the body of Christ, but they 
would have it believed that they are. Now, for our own integrity 
and the sake of God, we must not let these matters go by unnoticed. 
And I assure you that if you are wondering why I am talking about 
the Bible when there are so many other important issues in the 
world — I assure you that you have missed the point, because the 
whole of human history is focused in this word. 

Who Slammed The Door 
to Noah's Ark? 

March 16, 1980 
Romans 5:13-25; Genesis 7:11-16 

Who slammed the door to Noah's ark? Who shut it up watertight 
against the raging flood? Who fastened that door against the re- 
mainder of the animals and the people, when the quota of two by 
two had been realized? Who left the rest to die by drowning? 

It surely was not the ones already knee deep in the impending 
watery doom. Perhaps, as legend has it, they had mocked Noah 
during his long and lonely days as a gloomy and solitary ship- 
builder. But their teasing must have turned to terror when they 
were caught by the quota and realized that they were not on the list 
of passengers. Perhaps they hoped, with a hope only born of des- 
peration, that they might rush on board at the last moment. Per- 
haps the animals were poised to slip catlike, to sneak through a 
door but barely ajar. They were now at the place where any old ship 
would do in the storm. But the door was slammed in their faces. 
Everything on earth was blotted out. They never made it. They 
died by drowning. 

Who shut the door? It is for sure that the flood's victims did not. 
Neither did Noah and that is a fact which merits our attention for 
what it is worth. 

If the doomed did not, if Noah did not, who slammed the door 
shut? Let me tell you who did it. The same one who banished 
Adam and Eve from Eden for poaching on forbidden fruit, that is 
who did it. The same one who, without any good or apparent 
reason, chose between the sacrifices of Cain and Abel — a choice 
which led to Abel's death at the hand of his brother — that is who 


138 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

did it. The same one who sent the terrible flood in the first place, 
that is who did it. The same one who, when faced with the corpo- 
rate pride of a unified humanity, confounded the builders of Babel's 
tower, and shattered humankind by splintering its language. The 
same one who sent the death angel to the Egyptians, and later 
crushed them in the clapping hands of the Red Sea, that is who did 
it. The same one who later brought Israel into the days of their 
exile, that is who did it. 

He was the one of whom the psalmist chanted, "How terrible are 
thy deeds. ... he is terrible in his deeds among men." The words 
leap at us from the scripture's account of the event of the flood. 
After Noah and his divinely ordered quota were on board the ark, 
the scripture says, "And the Lord shut him in." It was God. And 
when the Lord shut Noah in, he simultaneously shut everyone else 
out. It was God, the one mighty and terrible God, who slammed the 
door shut and sealed the fate of those who were left out. 

Now to be sure many rationalizations have been offered where- 
by we do not have to blame God for the terror of that time. Most 
attempts at historicizing the flood have been exercises in futility 
and give us hope that it never happened. Many archeologists have 
journeyed to Ararat only to leave in disappointment having found 
not the slightest trace of the ark. And so the chance that the story is 
a myth, without historical foundation, has allowed some people to 
say that since there may have been no flood, then it is not necessary 
to ask why a good God would have created such a monstrous death 
by drowning. 

But there is one matter which cannot be treated by scientific 
inquiry or by digging in the ruins of Ararat; that is the fact that the 
author of this story states without condition or explanation that 
God shut the door. So it does not matter, does it, whether the 
account is factual or not. What we must deal with is that the writer 
had no qualms in leaving with us his assumption that God 
slammed shut the door. 

Let those who are so inclined argue at will as to whether or not 
the writer had his facts straight about the flood. But, in the situa- 
tion, this matter is not nearly as important as is the writer 's inter- 
pretation of God. In other words, the factuality of the flood is not as 
significant as is the question as to whether or not God is the kind of 
God who would shut the door to the ark. And the question persists 

Who Slammed The Door to Noah's Ark? 139 

until we are forced to ask, Is the God who shut the ark's door the 
same God we know in Jesus Christ? May we not agree that the 
nature and acts of God are more important than the literal fact of 
the flood? 

Before we organize a safari to hunt down an answer, it may be 
that by raising and answering a question or two about Noah, we 
will be able to forego any such expedition. For example, what kind 
of man was Noah? Why was he not like Abraham or Jonah, a tragic 
hero type, ready and willing to die for others? Why did Noah, if he 
were a righteous man, not offer to step aside and die in the flood 
while giving his place on the ark to a feeble old person or a helpless 
infant? One answer is that when God is working out his will in 
history, tragic and sacrificial heroes seem only to get in the way. 
What God wanted to effect on Mount Moriah would not have come 
to pass if he had allowed Abraham to die in the place of his son, 
Isaac. God was calling for obedient faith rather than heroism in that 
instance. And although we seldom think of Jonah as a hero, he tried 
very hard to be one. God wanted Jonah to preach in Nineveh so 
that the citizens of that city would repent and be spared. Jonah 
preferred to be a hero, and when the tempest caught the ship, on 
which he was fleeing from God's orders, Jonah asked that he be 
thrown overboard so that the lives of the sailors might be spared. 
But God was looking for a preacher, not a hero, at that time. So the 
fish carried Jonah to the shore, and when he had deposited him 
there, God told Jonah, "Go to Nineveh and preach." 

If then there were no places in God's scenario for heroes, in 
Noah's time, why did not Noah shut the door instead of God? He 
had done everything which God had ordered up until that time; 
why did he not shut the door? Was it not perhaps because he could 
not bring himself to do so terrible a thing? 

Noah's last days were anything but glorious ones. The record tells 
us that he got drunk after the flood. Some have speculated that he 
did so because of the letdown after these venturesome days of 
riding out the flood. The aftermath could have been sheer boredom 
for this doughty ship's captain. Or it may have been that he became 
a well-to-do vinegrower and the success went to his head along 
with the wine. Others wonder if he were not trying to forget those 
awful cooped-up days aboard the ship. Perhaps he suffered as 
much as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But so long as we are 

140 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

supposing, why not speculate that he got drunk because every time 
he tried to sleep, he remembered his neighbors whom he had left to 
die? That would be enough to make drunks out of many of us. 

If this is at all a clue, then we may surmise that Noah did not shut 
the ark's door because God did not ask him to shut it. Perhaps God 
would not even have permitted him to do so. God is responsible for 
his judgments and shows his love, even in the midst of them, by 
always doing the hardest things there are to do in bringing his 
judgment and will to pass. 

It needs to occur to us, if it has not already done so, that our 
questions as to how a good God can allow evil to exist and happen 
in the world need possibly to be reworded. Then we might ask, 
"Why does God always do the hardest things which pertain to the 
problems of sin, suffering, evil, and death?" 

We often would make it easier for God and ourselves in matters 
pertaining to the mystery of sin, suffering and death. Richard John 
Neuhaus tells of visiting with a bereaved family, whose pastor had 
shared with the distraught members his understanding about the 
stages of grief outlined in the writings of Kubler-Ross and others of 
like ilk. The family members discussed among themselves these 
various episodes of grief. There was little wonder and less outrage. 
There were no religious questions. Newhaus says, "It was clinical. It 
was awful." 

This antiseptic treatment of tragedy may make it easier for us 
and for God, because we never raise the question why. We are not 
forced to wonder about God's goodness or about whether our own 
sinfulness had a casual relationship to tragedy and grief. Even if 
there is little likelihood that one can find the answers to such 
questions, they are ones deserving to be asked. The end result of all 
such inquiry is to say, "what has transpired is according to God's 
will." Then it is that we realize that, although evil is a mystery 
beyond our rational explanation, God is the one who chooses to 
tackle the toughest decisions and do the hardest things. 

Jesus knew this to be the case. He would have in no way disa- 
greed with Paul's splendid witness, that the God who slammed the 
door to Noah's ark is the same one "who shows his love for us in 
that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." Christ would 
underscore the testimony that "while we here [his] enemies we 
were reconciled to God by the death of his Son," and that "much 

Who Slammed The Door to Noah's Ark? 141 

more, now that we are reconciled, we shall be saved by his life." Or 
that as one man's trespass led to condemnation, one man's act of 
righteousness led to acquittal and life. The one who shut Noah in, 
and the rest out, is the one "who so loved the world that he gave his 
only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have 
eternal life." 

That was surely the hardest thing that God has ever taken upon 
himself to do. And the apparent harshness of the decision was of 
such a nature as to cause the Christ to cry a cry of dereliction, when 
nailed to the cross, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" 

How is it that we recoil from the suggestion that the death of one 
of our beloved occurred within the will of God, when we have been 
told over and over again that the death of God's begotten, at whose 
baptism came the words shooting from the sky, "This is my beloved 
Son," was within the will of God? The cross did not take place 
outside the will of God; it did not transpire without his notice, 
knowledge, and confirmation. Jesus knew that this was the way it 
was to be. He understood that the cross, either without or against 
the will of God, would have been a meaningless tragedy, marked 
perhaps by heroism but empty of redemptive power. Is this not the 
reason he went from the supper to the garden, and there he prayed, 
"Not my will but thine be done." I do not think that the Gethsema- 
ne prayer was an effort to gain some last-minute reprieve. And it 
was not the prayer of an immature young adult still asking "Dad- 
dy" what he ought to do. It was rather designed to place the respon- 
sibility for the cross, where it belonged — where it could only 
belong — that is, in the mind and will of God. 

And this has been given to us as the good news, that because of 
the cross, even if we die, we shall live again. And thus we are saved, 
not from the mortician's ministrations any more than were those 
others saved from the ravages of the flood. What really matters is 
not how or when or why we and others die, but that we are saved 
for life eternal. And the one who shut the door to Noah's ark, and 
who shut the door on all other options for a praying Son in Geth- 
semane, is the one who has opened the door to the kingdom of 
heaven. And in opening that door, he had to do the hardest thing of 

Love and Taking Orders 

September 11, 1977 
Deuteronomy 7:6-11; John 14:15-24 

I must not allow another person to love me unless I am open to 
the possibility that he or she may make some changes in my life. 
Anyone who likes things just the way they are and oneself just as 
he is ought to avoid being loved. 

In a religious sense, especially the Judeo-Christian sense, to be 
loved by God is to allow him to give orders to those he loves. So it is 
that Deuteronomy leaves Israel with this reminder, "It was not 
because you were more in number than any other people that the 
Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest 
of all peoples; but it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping an 
oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you 
out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of 
bondage, from the hand of Pharoah king of Egypt. Know therefore 
that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps cov- 
enant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his. 

These verses are replete with love's will and power to change and 
order the life of the beloved. Israel's situation is changed in that it is 
delivered from bondage. Its people are redeemed , restored, saved. 
But such love demands that Israel know that its God is God and that 
to respond to his love with love is to keep his commandments. All 
of this moves me to say again, if you do not wish for things to be 
changed, stay away from love because it usually has change on its 

Love even thinks it has some authority to change or affect the life 
of its object. So far as the divine love is concerned, it is inseparable 


144 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

from commandment. The God who loves us gives us command- 
ments and expects our response to be one of obedience. Nor may 
we assume, as we are inclined to do, that Jesus' message was differ- 
ent. All this is a more gentle and tender Son of the Father. 

In the Fourth Gospel, Christ is quite forthright about his expecta- 
tions: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments . . . He 
who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves 
me, . . ." That is incredibly clear, is it not? A loving Christ gives 
commandments and assumes that love in return will take the form 
of obedience. Therefore, one must not expect to be loved by Christ 
without being ordered, saved, redeemed, and altered in some way. 

Modern people, whether Christian or not, tend to assume that 
although this is the nature of divine love, love between people, that 
is between their own kind, is radically different from the love 
which goes on between God and man. As a matter of fact, we are 
uncomfortable with, and appalled by, the faintest suggestion that 
love of one person for another — parents, children, mates, friends 
— will make for changes, alteration, guidance, and correction in the 
lives of those who are loved. 

I am convinced that there is no absolutely radical difference 
between God's love for a person and the love that two persons 
share. Human love, if it is to be genuine, must partake somewhat of 
the nature of the divine. I must admit that there is no indication in 
our favorite scripture on love that love intrudes, makes demands, 
orders, and changes one's life. However, we need to remember that 
Paul's hymn on love in I Corinthians 13 was in answer to the 
specific problems of the Corinthian church. The people of that 
church were claiming their superiority over each other, spiritually 
speaking, because of the supposed superiority of their gifts from 
God, especially the gift of tongues. Paul said that love, almost any 
kind of love, was better than that kind of bickering. We should not 
lift the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians out of its context and 
make of it a general treatise on love. Furthermore, let me speak a 
heresy — at least once: Christians ought to be able to think together 
about love, having gleaned the scriptures for help, without so 
much as resorting in any way whatsoever to I Corinthians 13. 
Although it may be superior in style, it is no match for the gospel of 
John or the First Epistle of John with respect to a definition of love. 

Love and Taking Orders 145 

The First Epistle of John firmly puts to rest any notion that 
human love has absolutely nothing in common with divine love. 
The writer insists that * we love because he (God) first loved us." 
This is to suggest that our love is both motivated and enabled by 
the fact that we are initially loved by God. If God is necessary to our 
capability to love, he is also involved in the manner and fashion of 
the way we love. 

Furthermore, in the fourth chapter of the First Epistle of John 
one may read, "If any one says, 1 love God/ and hates his brother, 
he is a liar." Why is such a person considered to be a liar? Is it 
because it is conceptually and psychologically impossible to love 
God without loving one's brother? Although, it is tempting to place 
some such interpretation on the passage, the context indicates 
something else. The chapter closes on this note: "And this com- 
mandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love 
his brother also." One who claims to love God but does not love his 
brother is a liar because he has failed to keep God's commandment 
and this is proof that he does not love God. If it were impossible, by 
nature, to love God while failing to love one's brother, there would 
be no need for a commandment that we should love our brother as 
well as loving God. 

Once again, therefore, love is couched in commandment. And 
although this is not exactly the same with human love as it is with 
divine love, the former is a modification of the latter rather than 
being something radically other. Because no person is God, his love 
for another cannot command. But his love for another is character- 
ized by suggestion, by some intrusion, and by having something to 
do with the shape and nature of the one whom he loves. 

If I sense the modern mood, in almost any kind of relationship, 
marriage, parenthood, sibling status with parents, and with one 
another, friendship, relation between persons and institutions, the 
kind of love which has been defined heretofore is apt to be shoved 
aside for another kind of love. It seems as if most of us, although 
wanting to be loved perhaps as much as ever, want love which does 
not meddle, does not claim, does not suggest, does not demand, 
does not interfere, intrude, or encroach, does not correct, does not 
guide, and (I am afraid) also does not care. 

The love to which I am now referring comes close to defying 

146 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

definition. It is most difficult to speak of it metaphorically or to find 
appropriate analogies. Although it tends to have some characteris- 
tics of idolatry, it cannot be this, because we form the idols we adore 
and worship, and the new kind of love will have no part in the 
object of love being shaped by the one who loves. 

In my confusion, therefore, I am reduced to describing the cur- 
rent kind of love by use of some illustrative and fairly personal 

Some years back we were baby-sitting a dog for one of our 
children. I cannot say that I passionately loved that dog. In fact, 
before my experience with him was through, I was committed to 
reversing the popular adage to the extent of insisting that "dog's 
best friend is a man." In any case, I built an enclosure at some 
considerable expense with my customary expertise, which is next 
to nothing. One day, while trying to escape his confinement, the 
dog caught his hind legs in the wire at the top of the pen and I 
found him with his tail pointing to the heavens while his front feet 
could barely touch the ground. Naturally, as I tried to free him, a 
hapless victim in a spider's web, he tried to bite me each time I 
added to his fright or caused him a little pain. 

I would judge that I had saved that dog because I did care for him. 
And by caring for him this much — call it love if you insist — I 
could not let the matter stand as it was. I bought more wire and 
supports in order to raise the level of the enclosure and make it 
more secure. Then too, the next time I saw the dog trying to escape, 
I delivered a few well placed licks in order to discourage his fool- 

If I understand the modern definition of love, it was love which 
prompted me to save the dog, but my deeds of strengthening the 
restraints about him and disciplining him were not love but domi- 
nation. I had been guilty of intrusion, of meddling in the affairs of 
the loved one, of trying to make him what I wanted him to be 
rather than allowing him to be himself. 

Transferring to the case of children, this would mean that one 
should rush to save the child from being run down by an auto- 
mobile, but should not teach the child to stay out of the street, build 
a fence perhaps to make sure, or discipline the child if he should be 
stubborn or unheeding about the matter. 

Love and Taking Orders 147 

Assuredly I am being ridiculous. Of course, we must protect our 
dogs and our children from harm, because in their innocence, they 
know not how to care for themselves. I admit to being ridiculous in 
order to point out how ludicrous others are in insisting that when 
the object of love is neither a beast or a little child, but an adolescent 
or above in years, these elements of protecting, caring, shaping, 
trying to assure the safety and welfare of others should immediate- 
ly be excised for what we call love. That is impossible to do. The 
more mature and self-reliant the loved one is, the more we can and 
should resist undue shaping and influencing of the loved one's life. 
But this is not the point; the point is that love, if it is anything, is 
something which invests in the life of another, establishes a 
beachhead on his emotions, and does indeed intrude into one's life. 

A second case is of a wife, who feeling ignored by her husband, 
confessed to him as she drove him to the airport so he might fly to 
an engagement in another city, that a mutual friend of theirs was 
showing some interest in her. Due to his husbandly inattentive- 
ness, she was afraid that she might respond to the man's overtures. 
Then she said as they pulled into the airport parking ground, "But I 
do not want the other man to love me and I do not want to love 
him, I want you to love me and I want to love you." To which the 
husband replied, "I know that," and he got on the plane and flew to 
more important business. I should think that this woman was not 
only trying to use her love for her husband in order to demand 
something from him, but she was crying out for the assurance that 
his love for her was of sufficient stature to demand something of 
her. But since he did not suggest, much less command, fidelity, she 
properly interpreted that he did not really love her. They are no 
longer husband and wife. 

Finally, I had a friend whom I loved and who loved me. Fellow 
ministers, we used to stand together against the blandishments of 
the fundamentalists. We spent hours arguing theology, demanding 
of each other that we be the best clergymen possible, our devotion 
causing us to criticize each other's sermons, and books, and profes- 
sional style. We ate with relish in big-city restaurants, lolled on the 
beaches together, and looked forward to vacation time when we 
could gripe with and at one another about ministry, church, and life 
in general. 

148 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Now my friend has drifted out of this. He is no longer the keen 
New Testament scholar that once he was. He jeers at the church. He 
has found other interests. But we do not try any longer to change 
each other. I neither try to pull him back to the church, which is so 
dear to me, he no longer tries to pull me out of it. I still love him. I 
would extricate him as once I did from the ocean. But then I could 
scold him for floating half -asleep to what seemed to be a middle 
point in the Atlantic. We no longer scold. We no longer argue. We 
no longer intrude. We are no longer friends. 

Let me confess to my wife, my children, my in-laws, my col- 
leagues, my friends, my beloved congregation, I do not know how 
to love any of you if I cannot invest in your lives, butting in, 
suggesting, shaping, criticizing, asking questions. 

And please, family, friends, congregation, if you love me, keep 
those nosy questions and suggestions coming in. I am an adult. I 
have some maturity. I am somewhat my own person. I will often 
make up my own mind. 

But if you love me prove it by asking and suggesting: Where 
have you been? Who's your friend? Don't you think you ought to 
see a doctor? Don't you have enough sense to come in out of the 
rain? Your telephone personality, as well as the rest of it, could use a 
little work. Are you going to wear that tie with that shirt? Squash is 
good for you whether you like it or not. I am praying for you. 
Whatever possessed you to preach such a silly sermon? When was 
the last time you prayed? And have you been filled with the spirit? 

Tragic Outcomes From 
Broken Promises 

July 15, 1984 
I Kings 8:54-61; Hebrews 11: 13-16, 39-40 

Broken promises breed both cynicism and despair, profoundly 
and in large numbers. Tragic outcomes they are and made all the 
more so because they do not immediately reveal themselves, do not 
easily identify themselves as cynicism or despair. With the cynic, it 
is a matter of image. The cynic refrigerates anger, deposits disap- 
pointment in the deep freeze, ices the emotions so as not to appear 
bitter or shocked with the lies which lacerate one's soul and one's 

Despair is even worse and even less likely to give any sense of its 
existence. Whereas the cynic is dealing with image, the despairing 
person is dealing with the reality of hopelessness. Despairing peo- 
ple do not even cry out. I do not know exactly what is meant by that 
phrase "cry of despair" or "voices of despair," People who cry out, 
even if in danger of drowning, still have their heads above the 
water. Psychologically and emotionally speaking, if a despairing 
one cries out, it would be only to fill the lungs and to drown- 
All the more tragic they are because they are not easily seen in 
individuals or in the society as a whole. Cynicism and despair are 
no more evident to the eye than they are to the ear, except for the 
possible fact that there are ugly creases in the fabric of society like 
the furrowed brow of a countenance. But even those creases appear 
to belong, like seersucker, though having been pinched into pain- 
ful puckers; they are more or less the style of the time. 

We are so accustomed to the litter of fragmented vows, so inured 
to promises broken, that we can move through the houses of mod- 

150 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

ern culture and never notice the dishelvelment or the seediness of 
the distress. I think that is tragic, for I believe that we are a cynical 
and despairing people in today's world, cynical and despairing to a 
great extent because of promises and vows made and broken. I am 
trying today to call your attention to the incidence and the nature 
of the unkept vow, so that we may get a better reading on the 
damage that it does when we break promises to others and of the 
damage others do to us when they do not keep their vows with us. 
So look at the litter, if you will, however unpleasant it may be. Do 
not avoid the debris, but take account of it. 

It may help if we understand that cynicism is the result of one 
kind of broken promise, while despair is the result of another. 
Cynicism, for the most part, comes from promises based on deliber- 
ate lies, in the full awareness of those who make them that they are 
lies. I would suggest that this is what happens to households and 
breeds a kind of cynicism that is not absolutely destructive but at 
least illustrative. When did the child tell the last lie about TV, that as 
soon as I can see this favorite show of mine, I will get to my 
homework, I will clean up the room? It couldn't have been longer 
ago than last night. When is the last time that the man of the house 
lied about the garbage, or the women about sewing buttons? It goes 
on and on: promises, promises, promises which nobody intends to 
keep. Ultimately, there is the kind of cynicism which doesn't take 
the promise seriously. 

These are vignettes of a larger scene, vignettes of the kind of 
cynicism and despair which operates in corporate society. Corpo- 
rate cynicism is brought on because of the broken promises, based 
on lies, that are issued by our social institutions, our corporate 

Business: business, particularly by use of commercials, usually 
lies and knows that it is doing so. Now that is no shock to you, is it? 
What about the church? As an institution in today's world, no 
institution is breaking more promises and knowing that it is going 
to when it makes them than the church. The first doesn't shock 
you; I hope the second will make it hard for your apathy to survive. 
The church is a liar. 

As for business, your automobile burns more gas than was prom- 
ised; that is for sure. I doubt that there is a single exception in this 

Tragic Outcomes From Broken Promises 151 

room to that reality. And be sure of this, if you are having trouble 
with your spouse, reconciliation will not come over a cup of coffee, 
regardless of the brand. Communication gaps between father and 
son are not likely to be bridged by conversations over deodorants. 
Beer drinkers are more likely to argue about darts than about low 
calories and great taste. And whoever heard, in the modern age, of a 
son who didn't have a home computer going off to college on a 
train? The reason the boy doesn't have a home computer is because 
the parents are still paying for the Porsche. These are lies; every- 
body knows they are lies. 

Religious commercials are no less misleading and altogether 
more dangerous. If you can stand it, tune in on the church on the 
airways today. Tune in. The man tells you that if you don't send him 
$500,000 dollars in the next half day, he will be off the air. But, just as 
sure as shooting, you tune in and he's still there. One dear man said, 
"The wind blew over my antenna, and I can no longer proclaim the 
Lord's Word, unless I get my antenna back. I need $350,000 or so for 
my antenna." It was insured. Getting yourself born again will not 
guarantee happiness. Christian social action will not solve all the 
world's problems. Tithing won't make you one cent wealthier. Rel- 
evance is not the ultimate religious test. Jerry Falwell and Phyllis 
Schafly are not the new Adam and Eve, redeemed to bring the new 
humanity into the twenty-first century. Lies, and everybody knows 

Church after church — not only electronically, church after 
church lies. Do you realize that we now are in a time when people 
are suing the church for lying to them? People are suing the pulpit 
because the pulpit said, if you do this and you do that, you do this 
and you do that, you won't be sick any more. You will be absolutely 
happy, your home will be Eden, and you won't even grow warts. 
Cynicism is the result. 

Despair is the result of promises broken because the promisers 
cannot deliver what they promised due to their impotence. You 
know that to be true of government, do you not? As we gear up for 
the conventions, you know that to be true of government. But I fear 
that it is also true of educational enterprises, particularly at the 
level of the academy, a place like this. The academy is the most 
honest place that I know. The academy has greater integrity than 

152 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

the church, so far as institutions are concerned. Mark that: the 
academy has greater integrity than the church, on the average. The 
academy makes promises which it cannot deliver because of its 
impotence and because of its prejudice. Hear this: "Using technol- 
ogy wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, mar- 
kedly reduce disease, extend our life span, significantly modify our 
behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural develop- 
ment, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with un- 
paralleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful 
life/' Indeed. 

This is Humanist Manifesto II but it comports with the best 
educational ideas. If using technology wisely will eliminate selfish- 
ness, then it will eliminate poverty. But I have seen no evidence 
whatsoever that technology has done anything about selfishness. 
Those kinds of promises do not take account of the human condi- 

One of my dear friends of yesteryear is now president of a very 
prestigious college. Making a speech here some years back, he said 
that he did not understand — that that very fine institution taught 
all its students virtue and the value of life. Not a single virtue, not a 
single social responsibility was left out in the teaching and training 
of that student body. But, said the president, when they get out into 
the world, they forget all of their social responsibility. He didn't 
understand it, nor did he appreciate too much my remark that if he 
still believed in Original Sin the way he had when he started out, 
he would understand the problem much more clearly. 

But it is not only impotence; it is prejudice. The academy is not as 
prejudiced against minorities or against the poor as are other insti- 
tutions. The academy has only one prejudice: it is prejudiced 
against ignorance and the ignorant and the unlettered out there. 
The more specialized the academy becomes, the less it hears the 
needy calls from the community. If you think that I am being too 
harsh, let us take one example from very close to home. Some of our 
faculty people, some who are members of this church and some 
who are not, are teaching the prisoners over at the Cherry Street 
facility right around the corner. Said one of the prison officials to 
one of those faculty members not long ago, "I am so surprised that 
you are here, that a Wake Forest professor would be doing this. That 

Tragic Outcomes From Broken Promises 153 

is not the image of Wake Forest that Winston-Salem has." Listen: the 
academy probably — anywhere, not just here — the academy 
probably has less effect upon its most immediate environment, 
particularly in the short run, than does any institution in our 
society. If you don't believe that, Wake Forest has been here thirty 
years. Go to civic clubs or other kinds of clubs. Listen to the pro- 

In order to be honest, I think I ought to talk about the religious 
academy, because it is in the same boat: it has a prejudice against the 
masses. I am distressed to learn that Southeastern Seminary down 
in the town of Wake Forest no longer requires a single course in 
homiletics and therefore takes no official responsibility for commu- 
nicating to the masses the word over which it ponders within the 
faculty and the elite. 

Government? We know. But, you see, I don't think the govern- 
ment lies. I think the government and politicians really believe — 
really believe in everything from trickle-down economics to cut- 
ting the national deficit in half. President Reagan promised to 
decrease the national deficit. I think he was sincere, but he didn't do 
it. Mr. Mondale says if we put him in there, he will save Social 
Security from bankruptcy without reducing a single benefit. We 
old folks, especially, would like to see him do that. The people who 
are running for election, some of them, will be fortunate in that 
they won't win and therefore they don't have to keep their prom- 
ises. And those who do win can blame it on astronomy, ecology, 
hurricanes, unforeseen disasters, which made them impotent. 

Now, beloved all that I am concerned with today, in the first place 
at least, in the most certain place, is the church, and the church 
doesn't have to lie, if it will quit being super-church. How big was 
Oral Roberts's Jesus? Was it nine hundred feet? All we need to do is 
present a life-size incarnation of the Word. All we need to do is to 
quit promising what the church can do. Maybe the church lies 
because it knows it's impotent when it tries to be all things to all 
people. And it is important for the sake of this sermon that I not 
deal in glibness. You heard from Kings that testimony of King 
Solomon. After a prayer of dedication for the House of the Lord 
which he's built, a temple, and a prayer of intercession it was also 
for the people, when he closed the prayer, he lifted his hands over 

154 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

all of Israel and blessed them and then said, "The Lord has not 
broken his promise by a single word." Now that's glib. That is not 
what is prevalent in scripture. It is a good thing Solomon didn't live 
long enough to meet Jeremiah, because Jeremiah said, "I curse the 
day I was born. I would have tripped the man who carried the news 
of my birth if I could have." And then he said, "Now, God, will you 
tell me why you are like a deceitful brook to me, like waters that 
fail?" Jeremiah dared to say of Yahweh what Job would only say 
about his friends: "Dried up streams, promising much and deliver- 
ing little." Jeremiah, in the first of that book, compared Yahweh 
with a fountain of never-failing water, but now the times are tough 
and he says, "God, are you really a crook? Are you really a crook?" 

Now in all these instances, you never find Yahweh or the God of 
Christ defending oneself — never. God said back, in effect, "Well, if 
you cannot stand up in a slight breeze, what are you going to do 
when the wind blows? If you can't keep your feet in a dry 
streambed with no water, what are you going to do when it gets full 
and rushing?" He said, "Jeremiah, you keep on with proclamation 
and you will be as my mouth, and I will make you as a fortified 
bronze wall to the people." Do you hear what God does to us? 
Whenever we scream at him for breaking his promise, he doesn't 
tell us whether he kept his promise or not; he simply says, "Go to 
work." Every time one says to God, "You've broken your promise," 
God says, "Test your faith." 

That is nowhere more beautifully and dramatically spelled out 
than in this letter to the Hebrews. The eleventh chapter starts off 
with: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of 
things not seen." Then the author lists Abel, Noah, Enoch, Abra- 
ham, Sarah, and Moses — people of great faith — and he says every 
one of them "did not receive what was promised." Do you see the 
fairness of that; do you see the truth of that? They died in faith. 
They died in faith, never having received what was promised. And 
he concludes this chapter by saying, "And all these, though well- 
attested by faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had 
foreseen something better for us, that apart from us, they should 
not be made perfect." 

Do you know what happens then? "Therefore, since we are 
surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside 

Tragic Outcomes From Broken Promises 155 

every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with 
perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the 
pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set 
before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at 
the right hand of the throne of God." 

Here's the bottom line: faith does not raise the question of prom- 
ise. Faith endures, which means that the very promise of God does 
rest upon the steadfast faith of the people, so that those who do not 
receive what was promised might find their perfection in us, but 
that perfection is not that we have received what is promised; that 
perfection is that, in the cloud of witnesses, we run the race. Amen. 

Advent and Confession 

November 28, 1971 
Luke 2:8-14 

The last two stanzas of Bertolt Brecht's "Great Hymn of Thanks- 
giving" go like this: 

"Honestly praise the poor memory of heaven 

and the fact that it neither 

knows your name nor your face, 

nobody knows that you're still here. 

Praise the cold, the darkness, the corruptional 

Look and see, 

Nothing depends on you; 

you can die without a care." 
Looked at from a philosophical perspective, this would appear to 
be a dreadful existence. Looked at experientially, this seems, at the 
first layer, to be exactly what man wants. Not to have his name 
written in heaven is his final escape from responsibility. Since 
nothing depends on him and no one knows his face or his presence, 
he is able to die without a care. 

Heaven's poor memory has forgotten that man could be respon- 
sible for Vietnam, for prisoners in cruel cages, for poverty, for the 
future of the children. So man is not responsible. He is free from 
caring. And he even may learn to praise that fact. After all, segrega- 
tion reduces conflict. Wars provide some of the few remaining 
chances for making heros. Poverty reveals the sloth of the masses. 
So praise the darkness. It is a darkness which no light can pene- 
trate. It is a darkness in which our evil works are obscured and 
therefore is to be praised and loved. 

Man's need to praise and affirm is what gets him into trouble. He 
tends to brew up some kind of religion in the darkest places. And 

158 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

he knows intuitively that praise demands something that is praise- 
worthy. Over the long haul, this means that he cannot continue to 
praise the "cold, the darkness, the corruption." 

He lights a light in the darkness which he has made. But he 
cannot be content only to dispel the darkness. He falls down and 
worships that light. In silence, in the still smallness that Elijah 
knew, he feels the need for some kind of sound. So he fashions 
words in the stillness. The silence is broken by man's song to 
himself. He listens as if a gospel has been spoken. He has made his 
own good news. 

I am describing a modern condition. It comes from combining a 
rejection of the claims of any historic religious faith with a high- 
minded and sensitive concern for humane values. The trouble is 
that this sensitive concern becomes the object of worship. Concern 
is confused with gospel. Modern man tends to worship his con- 
cern. This is the object of his adoration. 

The mistake of the Jew is still with us. He became so enamored 
with the law which had been given him as to become almost 
independent of the Lawgiver. He listened for law so intently as to 
be deaf to Word and Gospel. The law was his fetish. 

We contemporaries have done as much with our sensitive con- 
cern. We depend so much upon it as to become independent of 
Word. It is a cheap evasion. We think that by replacing law with 
"love," we have avoided the mistake of the Jew. We have not pulled 
that off. Love is not the opposite of law. Each shuts out the sound of 
true Gospel. "For unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ 
the Lord." It is this which we do not hear. It is this which is 
unnoticed light. For we have filled the void with our own sounds 
and our own light. We feel no need of word or light which comes 
from above. 

Such talking to ourselves has burdened us with great fear. You 
know how you are startled upon hearing unexpected voices. And 
you may sometimes go through the house looking for their source. 
Nothing is then more upsetting than the discovery that you were 
talking to yourself. An unexplained mystery is better than this. It is 
one thing to talk to oneself for the sake of keeping company. The 
fear that is now upon us is that we are speaking truth and salvation 
to ourselves. And there is reason to suspect our sanity when we talk 

Advent and Confession 159 

to ourselves. That is compounded if we are talking truth and salva- 
tion to ourselves. 

There are a number of things in current fashion constituting a 
bid for sanity in this kind of setting. We have come to realize that 
we must quit talking to ourselves. Our individualism is beginning 
to catch up with us. So we have conditioned ourselves to listen to 
other voices. We try to muffle our individuality in a new kind of 

The older form of address and response is no longer welcome. It 
is now in vogue to have "rap sessions." Everyone is supposed to 
listen not so much to anyone else in particular but to the group as a 
whole. In such a way he deludes himself with the assurance that he 
is no longer only doing the talking. He is no longer the egotist 
spouting salvation sounds. Everyone listens to the group and it 
should be able to come forth with its own salvation talk and make 
its own salvation history One wonders if any appreciable change 
has taken place. True, the individual is no longer talking to himself. 
Mankind is now talking to itself .The insanity has been universa- 
lized and thereby compounded. 

This new style has found its way into the churches. Proclamation 
from or by the pulpit is no longer to be desired. That has been out of 
style for some time now. Several books have called for an indefinite 
moratorium on preaching. Address and response are not to be 
commended as religious style. 

The recommendations for filling that void suggest a situation in 
which everyone listens and the group talks. From the talking group 
some kind of brilliant truth is supposed to emerge. By some hereto- 
fore unimaginable miracle the group will come up with the salva- 
tion word. 

It would be better that someone other than a preacher give 
answer to this trend. Having just returned from a religious conven- 
tion and having heard the preaching there, I am more sympathetic 
with what you must endure Sunday by Sunday. 

In that respect, I must take care lest I seem to be defending my 
own profession and its characteristic features. Let me say that I am 
with you very often in wishing for a moratorium on preaching. But 
until something else comes along, I am bound to make this observa- 
tion. There is no such thing as a Gospel by consensus. I have no faith in 

160 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

that Gospel. No group can talk out its own salvation any more than 
an individual can. And I know of no situation in history, in which 
any community suddenly emerged in concert with the gospel. 
Every group has to be addressed by the word. And that word is 
proclaimed. For it has come from above. It is not the revelation of 
flesh and blood. To be sure there is dialogue in a religious setting. 
But it is dialogue with a Word that has been proclaimed. 

This leads us to look at Advent. 

The coming of Jesus can so easily escape us, this and every year. It 
did not claim the notice of the first age to which he came. Despite 
the scripture's adoring words, and its hallelujahs — that is with its 
most abundant narrative — it cannot drum up more than a few 
shepherds, three wise men, and some angels. Christmas is never 

There is no room in Advent, for sure, for praising the cold, the 
darkness, and corruption. There is no room in Advent for praising 
the poor memory of heaven, where our names and faces are forgot- 
ten; for Jesus comes to see his people. That is the reason God sends 

There is no room in Advent for talking to oneself. And it is too 
small and private a room for a talking group to occupy. 

Perhaps Rilke speaks to our condition and what may be the 
proper condition for Advent: 
Here in life I am alone, 
And apart from me there is only one Other 
And I am afraid, because I am farther 
away from him than he from me. 

That may be necessary to seeing Jesus, this recognition that he is 
always trying to come to us, that he is never as far away from us as 
we are from him. And if it at all be true, perhaps the best way to 
find him is while on our knees, silent, with our eyes closed. That 
may be superior even to climbing the tree in order to see him. For 
Advent is a season of penitence, and penitence is the time for 

I have long since quit being worried about the commercialism of 
Christmas. I think Jesus may have enjoyed joining with the throngs 
at Christmas shopping. Advent is not greatly distorted by commer- 
cialism, if at all. Advent is mostly distorted by the lack of confession 

Advent and Confession 161 

on the part of all of us. We prepare for the coming of Jesus as if he 
were an old friend, a first cousin, a wise teacher — almost anything 
other than a savior. 

But this is the only way he comes and confession is the only way 
to greet him. Let us not mistake confession for some recital of our 
bad luck or misfortune. His coming does not mean that we are 
going to get a better break in life. His coming does not assure us that 
things are going to turn around for us, that our irritations and our 
troubles will pass away. 

A savior is the promise that we shall not be destroyed by the 
sting of death which is sin. It means that we do not have to carry 
through the valley of the shadow, which is tough enough as it is, all 
those impediments which weaken us too much for the journey. 

A savior means that the covenants I have cracked, the trusts I 
have broken, the promises to which I have not been faithful, the 
hate that I have held for others, the children I have warped, the 
weak that I have exploited, the unbelief I have practiced, the rebel- 
lion I have exercised — that these are forgiven. It means that I have 
as many chances as I am willing to take to do better than that. 

It means that Jesus Christ will do for me what I cannot do for 
myself. But it means that he does do that — through his divine 
power — rather than through my psychologizing of myself. You 
see, I talk too much because there has always been a great deal of 
anger in me. So I talk it out and few people are ever able to 
recognize or realize just how much anger may lie beneath the 
surface. But that talking, as I have suggested from the first, is not 
salvation talk. That is psychological talk and I am thankful for its 
escape valve. But that is not salvation. Salvation saves whether one 
is angry or talks too much. 

So unto us is born a savior. Fall on your knees. 

God Bless America — Please 

July 4, 1971 
Matthew 20:1-16 

I have been pondering the question of patriotism these past few 
years. There are obvious causes for that pondering. Our country has 
been embroiled in a war which many of us believe is a uniquely 
sinister conflict. Our nation inclines toward Israel, in the terrible 
tempest of the Mideast, although many of us are not without 
considerable sympathy for the position of the Arab. The economic 
policy of our highest officials continue to raise serious doubts in the 
minds of many, who sadly predict a coming depression or a linger- 
ing recession for some years to come. The bizarre school system 
seemingly made necessary for the sake of integration has shocked 
the South and made it shout for equality with the rest of the nation. 
All of these create the sense of uneasiness and foster moods of 

What is a patriot at times like this? What is he to do? By definition 
a patriot loves his country, jealously protects its best interests, and 
recognizes its authority. At the present time, the last requirement of 
the three is the clinker. If one loves his country and seeks its best 
interests but feels that its government is not serving those ends, he 
may defy its authority and yet remain a patriot. At least, I consider 
this kind of person to be a patriot. I do not ponder his role. 

Then too, there are some obviously unpatriotic people who are 
not problematic. The anarchist does not tax our minds as to what 
we think of him. Nor is the deserter or the one who revokes his 
citizenship or one who prefers to live in another land. It is not to 
condemn these people to say that they are not problematical. They 
did not cause me to ponder the question of patriotism. 

164 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

The person who boggles my mind and gives me some sleepless 
nights is one who has replaced the day of the nation with the day of 
man. That is to say that he puts the welfare of universal mankind 
above the well being of any nation and its people. 

Here is the person one has to reckon with. In our nation, he puts 
humanity first and America second. His intentions are pure, his 
vision universal, and his love inclusive. His motives can hardly be 
questioned. He weeps over the casualties of war because people are 
dying on both sides. He is angered by our government because it 
weeps only for its own and exults in a paradoxical way over the 
body count of the enemy. He is so concerned for the starving people 
of the world that he does not believe the economic security of the 
United States should be its first concern. He would have our na- 
tional leaders jeopardize the financial security of this land for the 
sake of the starving peoples of the world. And he would allow the 
educational system of the land to become a shambles for the sake of 

This is the unpatriotic but good man, highly idealistic and sensi- 
tive to human suffering. He does not sing "God bless America." He 
sings "God bless man." Although he may not insist that these two 
invocations are mutually exclusive, he certainly does not believe 
that they are mutually important. Man before the nation is his 

The parable of the vineyard laborers is his parable even if he may 
misinterpret it. No matter their small input, no matter their small 
responsibilities, no matter many distinctions let all men be equally 
served and benefited. Those of early morning sweat should get no 
more than those who work the twilight cool. Grace unlimited is his 

No less a figure than the highly popular and competent Erich 
Fromm has written in this mood: "Not the national holiday but the 
'day of man' [should] become the highest holiday of the year." Thus 
the Fourth of July would become outmoded. This could happen 
only, as Fromm suggests, if "all nations concur and are willing to 
reduce their national sovereignty in favor of the sovereignty of 
mankind; not only in terms of political but also in terms of emo- 
tional realities." 

I do believe that a fourth of July is a good time — even the best 

God Bless America — Please 165 

time — to consider this proposition. For that reason I choose this 
above a communion meditation, a symbol in itself. 

Now this idealistic and unpatriotic man, as I have described him, 
is considered to be a good man by most and even a Christian by 
some. Even if his theories are discounted they are discounted be- 
cause they are impractical. His ideas will not work. But I am pre- 
pared to say that they should not. And I say this because of my 
conviction that this is not a Christian position although the person 
indeed may be a Christian. 

From the beginning of faith it has been assumed that man could 
not save himself — the fall which corrupted him and the whole of 
creation means that he cannot save himself. By the same token, the 
faith has always assumed that man was the instrument of salva- 
tion. That is to say that a particular man, a particular group become 
instrumental in the mission and the purpose of God. 

In the case of the Judeo-Christian faith, this meant the Jews. 
From Abraham until now, it has been believed that God used a 
particular people for the redemptive purpose. It is because man is 
the instrument of God's salvation that we must understand our- 
selves as particular adjectival beings; as Americans, Frenchmen, 
blacks, orientals, Christians, atheists, Buddhists. 

So far as the Jew was concerned, his nation and his faith were so 
interchangeable, that there was no conflict between assuming that 
the Jewish nation was to be an instrument of redemption. Because, 
as we believe from history, that nation rejected its mission in its 
rejection of Jesus Christ, another instrument was burdened with 
the redemptive mission. These are Christians. 

In this case, the situation is not as simple as the one of Jewish 
instrumentality. There is not now and there never has been a Chris- 
tian nation as there is and has been a Jewish nation. This is quite 
obvious when we trouble to think of it. The Jew, no matter where 
he lives, continues to identify with the Jewish nation, now strug- 
gling to keep itself together in the Mideast. Christianity is not 
indigenous to any given nation so that the Christian has also to 
belong to a kingdom which is not of this world. 

But this does mean that the Christian and the church must work 
with the nations in which they exist in order to be a blessing to 

166 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

In our own case this is America. And the patriotism of an Ameri- 
can Christian is informed by his hope that his land will be a 
blessing to all lands. He loves the nation, not as an end in itself to be 
sure, not beyond the kingdom of God, but he does love it as he 
would an instrument for the purpose of God. Which means that he 
wants it to be refined, useful, true, and good. 

The writer of I Peter, for example, was speaking to his audience of 
converts from Judaism rather than to the Jew when he said: "You 
are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own 
people ..." Even here the concept of nationalism could not be 

So we are aware that the American nation is not a Christian 
nation. It is therefore not the primary instrument for God's redemp- 
tive purpose. At the same time to whatever extent the nation and 
the church, the interim kingdom between resurrection and the last 
day, are consonant in their purpose, then we may call America the 
instrument of God for the blessing of all mankind. 

In this wise we must love Americans if we are to love other men. 
This is our point of reference. We love Americans as fellow workers 
in the mission to the world. America has come on the scene late as 
did the workers of the twilight cool in the parable. This is not, 
according to Rudolph Bultmann, a parable on grace as much as one 
on responsibility. The late workers fulfilled their responsibility. 
They were obedient to that for which they were called. And they 
have been blessed abundantly as a result. Indeed some other na- 
tions would have as much right to come in as did those arriving 
earliest in the vineyard. 

But let America and all other nations take note. It is not to the 
nation but to the church that God gives his certain word. The 
United States can in no way lay claim to a revelation which is not 
given to other nations. For so far as that revelation is embodied in 
Jesus Christ, it now rests with his body, which is the church. In the 
vineyard of the labor of the nations of the world, the late arriving 
American had better make very sure that it indeed is obedient to 
the word of the Lord. 

It was with considerable gratification that I witnessed the latest 
decision of the Supreme Court. While it struck down those actions 
which had the government aiding specific religion in specific 

God Bless America — Please 167 

ways, it refused to recognize a wall of separation between church 
and state. 

This is very much to the good. It does not in my view mean that 
the church may rest comfortably now that the government has not 
decided to rule out help for it. It means that the government does 
not care to be so far separated from the church as to get beyond 
hearing its proclamation. 

On the other hand, we may invoke the blessing of God on 
America with some pleading — with some saying please — be- 
cause it is the land of our church, it is the instrument for blessing 
the world as the channel through which the church may make its 
proclamation. It is for this reason that the Christian is indeed a 
patriot and he never really transcends the nation in which he lives. 

The Lord's Supper 

October 1, 1972 
Psalm 23; John 6:25-40 

Along with some of you, at least, I have my pride. That means 
that the profound confession ingrained in the Lord's Supper is not 
easy to enjoin. As modern man may see it, if he chooses, the entire 
Judeo-Christian way poses an insult. 

Can you imagine a self-respecting and self-contained person 
saying, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want?" This upstart 
awareness, not heretofore considered, caused me to rush to Mr. 
Webster. There I had my worst fears confirmed and compounded. 
You see, if the Lord is my shepherd, then I am his sheep. And to be 
sheepish is to be meek, timid, or stupid. Furthermore, it represents 
embarrassment when we become conscious of our faults. Thus it 
may be true that to anticipate still waters and green pastures, to 
enjoy the nurturing discipline of the shepherd's staff, is to engage 
in sheepishness. 

So it is that not only do I feel silly before this table, I also succumb 
to considerable envy of those who are not here because they are 
convinced that our being here is consummate silliness. The most 
extreme form of envy is probably experienced when an individual 
wishes he were like the person who never entertains the slightest 
desire to be like the one doing the wishing. In this wise the poor 
envy the rich, the ugly the beautiful, and the timid are jealous of 
the aggressive. 

As for me, I envy the kinds of people I almost became. I am 
referring to fearless, self-contained, self-assured, indefatigable, and 
venturesome persons, who believe they can turn the world around 
by dint of their own good work. Think of the chaplain of Yale 

170 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

University, William Coffin, bringing home three prisoners of war 
from Hanoi and telling Mr. Dubs, of the State Department, to shut 
up and listen to him. I think that I would have enjoyed that kind of 
scene, shocking Washington like that. 

I am sure that this approach to life is to be preferred over those of 
us who are busily getting ourselves saved and withdrawing from 
the world in the process. And that describes a host of people. Mr. 
Coffin could not get as many young people to go the Hanoi route as 
would have been the case a few years back. They are to busy telling 
one another in sweet little conclaves what Jesus means to them 
without bothering to think of what their brother also ought to 
mean to them. 

This approach to life is surely to be preferred over those who 
stick with the status quo and with narrow vision look on the bright 
side of life. They can see some good in Watergate and the wheat 
deal. Because the world is not totally evil in every degree, all of us 
can find the good and only the good if that is all that we look for. 
This is to say that something good will come out of the Reynolds 
Hospital mess. It is to say that the county commissioners and city 
aldermen are thinking only of the people and that their adolescent 
wrangling with each other is a reflection of that truth. You can go to 
East Winston and see nothing but the Butterfield estates and won- 
der why the black complains about his lot in life. And since more 
people are working than ever before, it is not important that more 
people are also not working than ever before. 

I will always take the Coffin and Dubs scenario in preference to 
that. I do not envy people who withdraw or the people of the status 
quo. It is the Coffins I envy. And yet I have more than a sneaking 
suspicion that Coffin and Dubs are apt names for the Hanoi caper. 
In other words, Mr. Dubs would like to bury it. And Mr. Coffin 
wants to prove that Mr. Dubs's crowd has really dubbed this situa- 
tion, in wake of which he would like to dub it a success for his side. 

You see I was going in that direction, the Hanoi route, for some 
time. If I may borrow a page from Paul, I have always been active in 
the causes of civic righteousness. As a very green young preacher I 
bucked a powerful syndicate of graft, liquor, and prostitution in the 
coal mining area of the southwest of Virginia. In Princeton, West 
Virginia, I fought for decent recreation for the young against the 

The Lord's Supper 171 

city fathers and the rich. I was the first chairman of the first 
Mayor's Committee on Human Relations south of Louisville. Also 
when in Durham, North Carolina, I fought for the rights of govern- 
ment workers as chairman of the Merit System Council of North 
Carolina, parenthetically following Mr. Jasper Memory of this 
school and congregation in that post. I was removed by a governor 
because I insisted that the council keep faith with one of its supervi- 
sors. I am an honorary member of Alcholics Anonymous because of 
my work with that great body. Here I have been a member of the 
Governor's Good Neighbor Council, on a task force with Model 
Cities, and am now chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Advo- 
cacy and Mediation. We score points by writing sharp letters to the 
hospital authority and the school board. 

But you see, along with Paul, I believe that this is all garbage for 
the sake of knowing Christ. And that is why I am at communion 
while those people I envy are out there drumming along the Hanoi 
route. Some of them, to be sure, are taking their communion this 
morning, but it strikes me as another act of doing good. By taking 
communion they are possibly doing something for Christ rather 
than letting Christ do something for them. 

We might clarify the whole matter if we see the distinction 
between sheep and goats. Both of these were used as sacrifices in 
early times. But the goat was somewhere changed into a scapegoat 
along that line. He was burdened with the sins of the people and 
driven over a cliff as a process of eliminating sin from the world. 
But by the time the sheep symbol had reached the New Testament, 
the sheep were no longer being sacrificed. The shepherd, Jesus 
Christ, had laid down his life for the sheep. So I am the sheep of his 
pasture and that is why I am at this table. 

This means that I confess that I am not responsible for my own 
salvation nor for yours. I have no taste for becoming anybody's 
scapegoat. I would like at times, I suppose, to be the savior. That is 
because I have had my bite from Eden's apple with a view to 
effecting the determination of good and evil. I have argued might- 
ily that if God gave the likes of me dominion over the earth, even 
the power of naming its animals, why do I not have power over 
good and evil? I would like to call good "good" and it so become. Or 
evil "evil" and so it become. But I know that I cannot do that. If I 

172 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

could it would be the ruin of all of us. 

I know quite well that Paul cautioned the Phillipians to work out 
their own salvation with fear and trembling. But he was not refer- 
ring to the absence of God. Rather they were to work out their own 
salvation while he, the apostle Paul, was absent from them and that 
work, with fear and trembling. I work, but not with trembling fear 
that I cannot accomplish my own salvation. I am sure that I cannot 
do that. I tremble with fear at the prospect that the good news it too 
good to be true. I tremble that Jesus Christ may not save us because 
we are sinners. But I know that for the same reasons of our sinful- 
ness we cannot save ourselves. 

So I come here for the bread of life. I come here for the reminder 
that Christ has already accomplished his work of salvation. 

Is this a cop-out? Am I simply evading the rigor of doing the 
work of God in the world? I trust not. The disciples asked Jesus, 
"What must we do, to be doing the work of God?" And he an- 
swered, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he 
has sent." 

That is what this bread is all about. We are trusting and celebrat- 
ing the shepherd of us sheep who has laid down his life for us. We 
will do that other work, that work in the world that should not be 
blinked away. That is God's work to be sure. But so is this. And if 
anyone forces us to make comparisons, then that other work is 
garbage and this is the bread of life. 

Of the cup, Jesus said, "Drink from it, all of you. And I will not 
drink it again until I drink it new with you in the kingdom of God." 

All of you, drink from it. All of you who do the work of God by 
believing. After believing, although you may be betrayers, def iers, 
defectors, sleepers in the garden of agony, drink from it, all of you. 

Do we catch Jesus in contradiction? Why this embrace of all of us 
in this supper? Did he not talk about self-denial, taking one's cross, 
doing good, caring for one's brother, all as being related to making it 
to the kingdom? Now he says, all of you, drink of it. What else 
would you have had him say? To be sure, he wants us to be good 
and worthy disciples. He sought loyalty, integrity, righteousness in 
his following. He spent the short span of his life trying to develop 

The Lord's Supper 173 

But in searching the gospels, I have found no evidence that the 
first twelve he called were supermen. The gospels say nothing of 
the personal qualifications of the disciples. Nor is there any indica- 
tion that Jesus had a check list to which he referred when he called 

So with us. There is nothing very remarkable about any of us. Yet 
we are always under command to rise above our potential in the 
mission of God. But when Jesus took leave of those disciples who 
had fallen far below the best, he said drink from this cup of cov- 
enant, all of you, no matter what. And I am a bit sheepish about 
drinking it, I know what it says about me, but Christ is our salva- 
tion and we accept his invitation. 

He will not drink it again until he drinks it new with us in the 
kingdom. That is his promise that he will pull it off. That is the 
challenge he makes to the world. The kingdom will come. God is to 
be vindicated. So as one of the sheep I drink the cup and salute the 
Second Coming. 

The Good News of Judgment 

May 13, 1973 
Matthew 22:15-22; Amos 7:1-9 

Amos said that he saw God standing beside a wall built with a 
plumb line and that God had a plumb line in his hand. The shape 
of a person's life is measurably affected by his response to the claim 
of Amos. Even in a time when such visions are suspect, I take Amos 
seriously. I do not have to believe in the literality of that plumb line 
in order to attest to its reality. Even now I can imagine God standing 
beside the wall of humanity which he had built to be true, and 
wondering why it got out of line. Because I believe that God is the 
judge of his creation and that creation must square with his judg- 
ment, the plumb line sometimes looks like a hickory stick. 

In the days of Amos, Israel was the wall beside which God had 
taken his place with that plumb line dangling from his hand. What 
had been built in truth was now a lie, out of line with the will of 

God warns that he is ready to set that line down in the midst of 
Israel and never again pass by its deviation and rebellion. God had 
already threatened a plague of locusts and fire for the people but 
repented of those ideas when Amos interceded. Amos was silent 
about the plumb line. God might well repent of natural disasters 
like the locusts and fire. Israel would have to repent of that. 

That plumb line is still in the midst of us. It has not been re- 

Believing that you will make the necessary exceptions for my 
ignorance of engineering and my notorious mechanical inaptitude, 
I dare to draw a contrast between a plumb line and a level as to their 
use in assuring a straight and true wall. Obviously, modern tech- 

176 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

nology has produced more precise instruments for such purposes. 
Unfortunately, technological practices are usually so remote from 
persons, by virtue of their automation, as to discourage their sym- 
bolic use. Modern life may blame some of its barrenness upon the 
fact that technology is almost devoid of symbolism. 

In any event, a plumb line establishes verticality. It is dropped 
from above to the center of gravity. A level establishes a horizontal. 
Crudely put, plumb lines square with the heavens while levels 
square with the earth. I doubt that the level had been invented by 
the time of Amos. Even if it had, Amos could not have imagined 
God using a level instead of a plumb line. Neither can I. 

Plumb lines are not dependent upon the wall in any way for 
measuring their alignment. They are set, before the wall is even 
begun. A level is dependent upon the wall that it measures. It 
cannot work unless it can be placed on whatever portion of the wall 
has already been laid. 

The verticality and independence of the plumb line make for a 
parable to Christians living in a secular time. Their lives should be 
shaped more by a plumb line than by a level. 

If he lives by what he professes, the secular moralist will work 
with a level rather than a plumb line. By secular moralist, I mean a 
good person who wants life to square with what is right. I also am 
speaking of a good man who does not believe in God or, at least, 
does not believe that God is needed or has any business in the 
world of moral humanity. 

Such a person usually believes and practices what might be 
called autonomous ethics or moral autonomy. He assumes that a 
moral standard is indigenous to history. He looks to the sides of his 
own life, placing the level horizontally, and adjusting the wall until 
the bubble is in the middle. He is not concerned with what might 
be the ethical will of God. At times, he is more adamant about the 
matter than merely being nonchalant. He sometimes argues that 
any nonsense about a transcendental ethic opens up a can of worms 
not even good for fishing. 

He will not use the plumb line because its independence and 
verticality suggest that the criterion and measurement for what is 
good and true is dropped from the heavens. Belonging as I do to the 
plumb liner's guild rather than the levelers, I confess to being 

The Good News of Judgment 177 

envious of the other side. My plumb lining techniques raise a 
question to which I can find no answer. The question is: "Is good 
good because God wills it or does God will what is good when and 
because he sees that it is good?" 

If I contend that good is good because God wills it, I am immedi- 
ately confronted with the problem of evil and the problem of God. 
If good is depending upon God's willing it, how do we explain evil? 
Are we going to suggest that even what we know to be evil is good 
because God has made it? That would be to corrupt God. Or must 
we confess that God is simply too weak to do anything about evil? 

If I decide that God wills what is good only after he has discov- 
ered it to be so, I take the plumb line out of his hand and replace it 
with the level. I make him subordinate to the moral automony 
which is already extant in history. I make him dependent upon 
what already has been built because he must decide on the basis of 
that what is good and what is evil. 

My secular friends have no such problem. Good and evil are 
synonyms for the greatness and the weakness of humankind. It is 
as simple as that. 

However great the temptations for some other style, the Chris- 
tian, if he lives by what he professes, is shaped by the transcendent 
ethics symbolized by the plumb line. He is inevitably mindful of 
the fact that "God saw everything that he had made and behold it 
was very good." That is to say that God arbitrarily saw goodness in 
what he had made. Nor can the Christian forget that perhaps the 
first attempt at autonomous ethics occurred in the garden of Eden. 
Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation to compete with God 
as to who would determine what was good and what was evil. 

The Christian is stuck with the problem of evil so long as he 
stands juxtaposed with the plumb line. The moment he rids him- 
self of the problem of evil, out goes the plumb line and in comes the 
level. The shape of a Christian's life will always contain the con- 
tours of that question mark reaching from Jeremiah's early "why" 
of Jesus on the cross of his own "why" in the tragic present. When 
he prays, "Thy (transcendent) will be done," the Christian takes up 
his question mark and follows Jesus. 

Living by the transcendent and independent will of God places 
the Christian in double jeopardy. He is often tried twice for the 

178 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

same crime or sin. Any offense committed against his own kind is 
also an offense against God. He must therefore level with his fel- 
lowmen, making amends and repairing what he has done to them. 
He must also work through his relationship with God. 

So vulnerable is he to this double jeopardy that his gifts to God 
must lie inactive and ineffectual on the altar, until he searches out 
the brother that has something against him. When he reconciles 
with his brother, then he is to return and offer his gift. He cannot 
get right with God if he is wrong with his brother. But he cannot 
simply by getting right with his brother also get right with God. He 
must return to the altar and offer himself to God. 

This is the reason why the Christian, after having made right 
relationships with his brother, is not finished as is the secular 
moralist. He still comes to worship and to the altar confessing his 
sin and seeking the merciful redemption of God. Even when the 
Christian seems to be level and even with the world, when he has 
done with other persons what he should do, nevertheless he must 
still acknowledge the plumb line and measure himself accordingly. 

This principle of double jeopardy may not be as old as Methuse- 
lah but it is as old as Moses for sure. It is clearly written into the law 
of Moses. The first four commandments attest to jeopardy before 
God: no other gods, no graven images, no profanation of the holy 
name, no violation of the sacred day of worship. 

The last six commandments may be said to constitute jeopardy 
before one's fellowmen. Certainly in modern times, autonomous 
ethics — the morality of the level — has incorporated all but one of 
them into civil law. Envy is not against the law. But the dishonoring 
of parents, killing, adultery, stealing, and libel are legally taboo in 
one way or another. By its very nature, moral autonomy is not 
concerned with the first four commandments and thus has not 
worked them into the law. 

The moral secularist presumes that basic morality, particularly as 
it may be legally enacted, is sufficient. The Christian does not live 
like this. Perhaps he remembers or intuits the uncommon practice 
of the prophets in this regard. We may presume that the Jews broke 
the laws against stealing, adultery, killing, false witness or libel on a 
par with average human beings. Yet the prophets were much more 
concerned with foreign treaties which suggested trafficking with 

The Good News of Judgment 179 

other gods, with idolatry, and to a lesser degree with profanation 
and the dignity of the Sabbath. 

As to the horizontal morality of the people, they spoke very little 
about killing, adultery, stealing and the like. They raised their 
voices against the exploitation of the poor. They condemned sacri- 
fices to God which were offered as a bribe for the sake of their 
immorality. Neither of these is mentioned in the commandments. 

By virtue of their emphasis upon the first four laws of the deca- 
logue and their introduction of new concerns into the latter cate- 
gory of the law, the prophets clearly indicated that God does not 
give only those laws that may be easily converted into an autono- 
mous ethic and that he does not yield to bribes that would cause 
him to get out of the morality business. 

To live in the world as if he were not subject to double jeopardy 
causes the Christian to lose or forfeit a distinctive life style. He 
becomes like one of our friends who lamented: "I think like a 
Christian and live like a humanist." This has happened to most of 
us, who worship and say our prayers and support the church with 
some of our time, talent, and money. That is an indication of the 
way we think but we live in the world like any other good man. 
Furthermore, we see no reason for doing otherwise. But we see no 
reason for doing otherwise because we have ceased to live under 
double jeopardy and have quit living in the two worlds of moral 
and ethical judgment. We use the level as frequently and conscien- 
tiously as do all good people, but we no longer pay attention to the 
plumb line. 

This would be of small matter if the only question had to do with 
our own personal loss of one characteristic of a Christian life style. 
There is more at stake than this. The loss of that characteristic is bad 
news for the world, secular as well as sacred. 

Give to Caesar what is Caesar 's and to God what is God's. Indeed 
that is the crux of the matter. There was no way to use a level in the 
conflict between Rome and the Jews. The leaders of the latter were 
talking of division and imbalance between Rome and Jerusalem. It 
was a debate which could not be settled by an autonomous ethic. In 
their question to Jesus, the questioners were prepared to label him 
as a traitor to the faith should he say that the taxes must be paid. If 
he said otherwise, they assumed that Rome would take care of this 

180 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Jesus appealed to the transcendent law. It was right and proper 
that people should pay taxes to a government which assumed its 
responsibility for them. But that was only right and proper in light 
of God's will that it should be so. And when he said that they 
should give to God what was God's, the final and irrevocable judg- 
ment of God was certainly central to his statement. 

Moral autonomy is the milieu in which good men, in the doing 
of what is right as they see it, are inevitably dividing themselves 
into opposite camps, thus going to war against each other. 

We can see why Jesus told his disciples, "Judge not that you be 
not judged." This is not an injunction against the judgment of the 
plumb line but of the level. As he said, judging in terms of an 
autonomous ethic means that one must be judged only on the basis 
of what the other person thinks is right or believes to be some 
absolute which he has never quite been able to find. Jesus was not 
so much inveighing even against censorious judgment as against 
judgment that was empty and non-redemptive. The world is what 
it is now because so many of us are judged by the same measure 
that we have used in our judging. And the level of moral autonomy 
simply cannot bring the world to balance. 

When a person tells me that he is going to level with me, I ought 
to be careful. So should he if I should say the same to him. He 
means that he is going to get on eye level with me, being honest 
and unequivocal, telling it like it is. And possibly telling me the 
truth about myself. But when he levels, he most certainly is think- 
ing of descending to my level — perhaps condescending to my 
level. There is no judgment here. This is mere rapping about ethics 
and morality. I would prefer to be judged by one who is higher than 
I, who looks down on me and deserves to look down on me. 

Otherwise, holy judgment has been thrown to the dogs. Other- 
wise the plumb line is being trampled in the mire of the pig pen. 

Join the Church 

October 18, 1970 
Genesis 28:10-22 

This the man who had the dream about the ladder. We sing about 
it sometimes and call it Jacob's ladder. Jacob was on his way from 
Beersheba to Haran to pick out a wife. His parents did not approve 
of any of the local girls. Their other son Esau had given them 
sufficient cause, it would seem, for their attitude in this respect. 

Since it was a long trip, Jacob spent at least one night on the road. 
It was at this time that he had a dream of the ladder, set up on earth 
and reaching all the way to heaven. Angels were climbing up and 
down the rungs. 

Jacob's vision included a blessing from God and a reminder of the 
covenant between them. In response, Jacob made a vow when he 
had awakened from his sleep that he would keep convenant with 
God and, according to God's blessing, would be a good Stewart of all 
he might possess. 

But this was not enough for Jacob, There had to be something 
more than visions and vows. Jacob felt the need to give perma- 
nence to his encounter with the Lord. Therefore, he took the stone 
which he had used for a pillow, stood it on end and made a monu- 
ment out of it. As a final act, he anointed it with oil. Then he 
decided that the place should be known as the house of the Lord — 
or Bethel. 

So it was that an ancient sojourner, primitive by our modern 
standards, nevertheless introduced us to a religious problem in that 
event, which we have not resolved up unto this day. 

The problem has to do with Jacob's action in consecrating the 
commonplace, setting up a holy place as a memorial to his encoun- 

182 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

ter with God. Had he been content to have his vision and make his 
vow, we would have no difficulty. But in all probability neither 
would we know of this event in his life. When he built a monu- 
ment to his encounter with God, he laid himself on the line. 

He embraced the incontrovertible principle that commitment to 
an invisible God must of itself be visible, if it is to have meaning 
and punch. To put it another way, dedication to the Creator, who 
cannot be seen, must use the stuff of his creation, which can be 

But at the same time, this consecration of what is commonplace 
— like anointing a rock with oil — oozes with the odorous stench of 
idolatry. We may safely assume that numbers of people who came 
to Bethel after Jacob's event saw little more than the anointed stone, 
forgetting the reason of its presence there and the cause for which it 
had been erected. 

This is the risk that any great religion must always take. For any 
great religion demands commitment and the demand for commit- 
ment never escapes the component threat of idolatry. Commitment 
is a very public and a very tangible thing. Hear Paul's word to the 
Romans: ". . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and 
believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will 
be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he 
confesses with his lips and so is saved." Paul was making no signifi- 
cant distinction between justification and salvation or between 
believing heart-wise and confessing lip- wise. They were insepara- 
ble in his view. One who believes confesses. One who confesses, 
confesses belief. 

Jacob called his place the House of God, thereby involving the 
church in this quandary by name as well as by actuality. The 
quandary may be simply expressed. Is the act of commitment so 
indispensable as to justify the risk of idolatry, or is idolatry so 
destructive that it should never be risked and therefore the act of 
commitment is virtually abolished? 

Those of us who are churchmen know better than "church de- 
spisers" that "church" often does more to hide God than reveal him, 
tends more to replace Christ than represent him, struggles more to 
become the ultimate reality than to symbolize that reality. 

Because of this realization, it appears that we are forsaking the 
concept of visible faith because we can no longer afford the conse- 

Join the Church 183 

quences of idolatry. As a result religious idolatry is on the wane. 
Notice — religious idolatry is on the wane. Idolatry in other cate- 
gories is flourishing as never before: all the way from Joe Willie 
Namath to Angela Davis. But we have crumbled under the fists 
that pound away at religious and churchly idolatry. And we have 
decided that the risk and the pummeling are too great a cost. 

It is inevitable that this caution against idolatry should take its 
toll in terms of commitment. For if commitment is not public, that 
is, if it does not skirt the edge of idolatry, and carry on its flirtation 
with idols, it is not authentic commitment. 

The trend away from possible idolatry, and thus away from 
public commitment, is evident in the growing reluctance of people 
to join the church. By their own self-estimate, they are not less 
religious than before. They continue to dabble in the dimensions of 
the spirit and embrace Tillich's sense of ultimate concern. Never- 
theless, they are wary of joining the church. Prevailing against the 
idolatrous tide, they have lost sight of the necessity for commit- 
ment that is tacked on the public bulletin board. 

My personal response to this poised dilemma should be evident 
in the sermon title: "Join the Church." I am therefore prepared to 
argue that public commitment is so essential to the Christian life — 
indeed to most any kind of religious life — as to justify the inevita- 
ble risk of idolatry that accompanies it. 

Let me begin by contending with those of us who are members 
of this church. I begin here because you and I are the chief reasons 
whether or not people join this church. There are reasons why 
people are not joining the church today. Churches everywhere are 
in disrepute. Faith in the transcendent and supernatural is not as 
easy as it used to be. Technology seems to make the care and gifts of 
a shepherd-Lord somewhat superfluous and possibly second rate. 
But these are secondary reasons. 

Throughout their history, churches have not been embraced by 
people because of the preacher 's excellence or because of doctrinal 
certainty. They join the people who belong already to a given 
church. Admittedly, they may sometimes join them with reference 
to class status. And newcomers are alternately attracted or repelled 
by the friendliness level in a given congregation. There is a deeper 
and more genuine reason. 

Let me give a "for example." If I were looking for a church to join, 

184 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

I would not give major consideration to the preacher — his gifts or 
theological position. Nor would I concern myself with how many 
or few people shook my hands or greeted me as a visitor to the 
service. I would try to determine the visibility of the congregation. 
By this I mean I would look for the visibility of its commitment. I 
would want to know its common cause. And if that cause were 
obscure, diffused and diffident, poorly expressed or not at all, I 
would be hesitant to join with that church. On the other hand, I 
could be sure that common cause would mean community and 
fellowship, and that in any community accepting one another I 
would also be accepted. 

May I, in this vein, suggest to you what I see to be our commit- 
ment as a church in this place? We may verbalize by saying that we 
are committed to the God of Jesus Christ. But in terms of visible 
commitment we need to say more about our life style as a church in 
this place. Therefore: 

We are a body of faith which proclaims given truth, i.e. "God was 
in Christ reconciling the world unto himself/' in an environment 
which pursues truth but never manages to domesticate it. We have 
been given enough truth for life but believe that life is enhanced by 
the never ending quest for more truth and its confirmation. 

We are a body of faith which eagerly submits our proclamation to 
the disciplines of inquiry and communication. We are not afraid 
that intellectual acids, contrary opinions, or empiricism will alien- 
ate us from a transcendent God. 

We are a body of faith which believes in the church and we are 
not afraid to affirm it, even to love it, all the while being cognizant 
that it is a human institution, which in no way supplants the God 
of Jesus Christ. 

We are a body of faith which seeks to be sensitive to the needs of 
all men as we depend on the Spirit of Christ to sharpen and sustain 
our sensitivity. 

We are a body of faith that is dedicated to social justice, which 
seeks to topple the powers of injustice, including those ecclesiasti- 
cal powers of injustice, but we seek to act in reconciliation thus 
loving both the just and the unjust. 

We are a body of faith which finds challenge and excitement in 
our diversity: town /gown, young /adult, business /professional /in- 
tellectual, liberal /conservative, and we are exhilarated in the chal- 

Join the Church 185 

lenge of making a community which embraces such diversity. 

We are a body of faith which is open to all who desire by their 
own personal decision to belong to a community that proclaims 
Jesus is the Christ and Christ is Lord. 

Now let me conclude by addressing those of you who are mem- 
bers of churches in other places but not where you now live and 
those who make no public profession at all. To the first group, your 
commitment somewhere else, in the church back home, or in the 
city from which you have moved, cannot be telecast to this commu- 
nity. Your commitment is not visible unless you make it visible 
here. The shape of the student body will be determined by how 
public is the Christian commitment of some of you students. After 
all, with no disparagement of some of your worthwhile ministries 
in the ghetto, some of your idealisms about helping the poor can be 
a means of evading the very painful necessities of confronting your 
peers. No matter how old fashioned, how hopelessly out of style it 
may sound, the fact still remains that the lost, uncommitted, rud- 
derless and confused friend in your dormitory needs a certain kind 
of witness from you just as much as does the victim of blight and 

To faculty and administration I would say, that the public nature 
of your commitment to the God of Jesus Christ cannot be separated 
from the shape that this university will take in the days to come. 
You should join the church. 

To those who have made no public commitment in any place, 
who out of doubt and timidity, who out of extreme modesty, are not 
professing people, to you I would say, the church is a redemptive 
place. Liturgy is important. Theological and philosophical beliefs 
are important. A man should not profess to be what he is not unless 
he intends to become what he professes. But if the church is a 
redemptive place, then part of that redemption should occur after 
one has become a member of the church. So you should join the 
church. And if there is one or more there, by chance, who belongs 
to none of these categories — who is the enemy of God, who hates 
the faith and its church — if by chance you are here to hear these 
words by other means — to you, we proclaim: Our Christ died for 
you, whether you asked him to or even wanted him to do so, he did. 
And we shall pray for you. 

Things I Can't Preach 
and You Can't Hear 

November 2, 1980 
I Samuel 8:10-18; Romans 8:18-28 

I cannot preach that tithing is an appropriate and necessary 
aspect in the Christian way of life; if I could and did, you could not 
and would not hear it. I cannot preach as if I have access to inerrant 
authority; if I could and did, you could not and would not hear it. I 
cannot preach hell fire and brimstone raining a deadly torrent on 
sinners far and near; if I could and did, you could not and would 
not hear it. I cannot preach joy without insisting upon taking notice 
of a suffering world; if I could and did, you could not and would not 
hear it. 

I cannot preach tithing and my incapacity is not due only to the 
fact that it was a legalistic practice given scant attention in the 
scriptures of the New Testament. I am also restrained because tith- 
ing was practiced in endless confusion from the beginning. As of 
the present, there are debates about whether a tithe is to be taken 
from gross or net income; in those days there were differences 
about a tithe of crops or cattle, whether it should be given to kings 
for support of sanctuaries or directly to sanctuary officials, whether 
tithe and first fruits were the same thing or separate, whether the 
tithe should benefit only the priests or also be given to the poor and 
in some instances even to the household of the farmer making the 
offering. First Samuel warns that, if Israel insists upon having a 
king, the king will take a tenth and give it to his officers and 
servants and take the tenth while enslaving those who make the 

188 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Subject as it was, and still is, to endless legalistic wranglings, to 
corruption, to temptations of self-righteousness, and to straitjacket- 
ed faith, the tithe is hardly a fit subject for homiletics. It is not an 
appropriate or necessary aspect of Christian practice. As a general 
rule your patterns of stewardship indicate nothing to the contrary. 

I cannot preach as if I have access to a source of inerrant authority. 
I am but a preacher-person, under constraint to proclaim the Word, 
but with the conviction that God determines according to his own 
will at what time the words I offer become his word. I am mindful 
of scriptural discrepancies, of the ambiguities of theological ab- 
stractions, of my personal sin as an ever present deterrent to pure 
religious experience. Given the limitation of my mind and my 
spirit, I am not able to recognize, understand, or declare religious 
absolutes. As to a text, undergirding my authority to preach, I turn 
consistently to a passage from I Timothy: 'The saying is sure and 
worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to 
save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy 
for this reason, that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might 
display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to 
believe in him for eternal life." 

So it is that the only perfection, to which I may refer in my 
proclamation, is the perfect patience of Jesus Christ as he allows me 
to preach despite the lack of complete assurance in that preaching. 
And I am convinced beyond any doubt that if I stood in this place, 
acting as an absolute authority, you would simply ignore me, your 
kindness preventing you from taking more drastic action. 

I cannot emulate Jonathan Edwards, causing you or others to 
faint from fear as I deliver the chilling news of "Sinners in the 
Hands of an Angry God/' When I am asked if I believe in hell, I 
answer "no" because I believe in Jesus Christ. By the same token, I 
do not believe in the devil which would make me a "devilian" 
rather than a Christian. It is not for me to say whether or not there 
is a hell, whether or not there is a devil, I can only say that these are 
themes which I cannot incorporate in my preaching. Were it not for 
the parable of the wedding garment, where one who has been 
compelled to come to the wedding feast is cast nevertheless into the 
outer darkness, I would probably be a universalist in my theology 
of salvation. 

Things I Can't Preach and You Can't Hear 189 

In any event, I am more at home, theologically, experientially, 
and emotionally when preaching of God's grace in Christ than 
preaching the vengeance of God. And I am more than reasonably 
sure that were I to lace my sermons with hell fire and brimstone, 
you would personally transport yourself to a level above the fray, 
cooling the environment with your detachment while icily assess- 
ing my mental state and wondering inwardly, What is wrong with 
our preacher? This is so unlike him. 

And I cannot preach joy, if that means that we refuse to live in the 
pit with those who suffer and blind our eyes and shut our ears to 
the fact of their distress. In other words I cannot preach joy in a 
cosmic context of joy. The world is neither a good or pleasant place. 
One who refuses to see that reality in order to experience personal 
joy will find little support in the preaching I do. I can preach joy if 
allowed to say that the sufferings of this present time must be 
understood in the light of the glory which awaits us. I can preach of 
joy, of caring and living for others. I can preach the joy of enduring 
through the pains of life while remaining faithful. But these are not 
pains which are put to sleep by a dose of theological aspirin. And I 
cannot preach joy apart from the struggle to free the captives, open 
the eyes of the blind, remove the yokes of the oppressed, and give 
sympathy to those who suffer. 

And if I did and could, I would discover that you do not come to 
this place looking at life and the world through rose colored glasses. 
I am forever impressed with the fact that you ask no cheap joy from 
this pulpit. God's grace has made you sensitive enough to know 
that a society which has no place for color, no room for minority, no 
charity for the poor is not a society in which to rejoice. 

I cannot preach these themes, but in the light of my admitted 
imperfections it should not surprise you that there are times when I 
wish that I could and there are times when I am strongly tempted to 
do so. In making that confession, I am making another which needs 
to be explained. My wish and temptation to preach such sermons 
must surely come from my awareness that such sermons are being 
preached in the "super churches" of this present age. And there are 
those times when I would like very much to be the pastor of a 
"super church." 

For example, I am relatively sure that churches in which tithing 

190 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

is preached as an undeviating command from the Lord are the same 
churches which are riding out the storm of inflation, which threat- 
ens to capsize the rest of the congregations. As I sift through the 
church newsletters which come to my desk, those reporting them- 
selves in considerable arrears with respect to their annual budgets 
are not manned by preachers who emphasize tithing as a practice 
in obedience to God's unmistakeable command. On the other hand, 
I have the distinct impression that the money is forthcoming when 
and where tithing is preached in such a way as to create both guilt 
and fear on the part of those who do not tithe. 

There is also an unmistakeable corollary between a successful 
church and a preacher who claims to be delivering inerrant and 
absolute truth. You may bring every weapon you have in your 
arsenal to shoot down the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, but those 
who preach that doctrine are the ones being heard in this present 
time. Even if such authority is more akin to that of the Pharisees 
and scribes, legalists and copyists, it seems not to matter; such 
authority is preferred to that of Jesus, whose authority was not of 
that ilk. Absolutism and success are cousin close in successful 

And I would remind you that the preacher who said, "Almighty 
God does not hear the prayer of a Jew," baptized over two thousand 
converts into his church in the year just past. His is an evangelism 
of hell fire and brimstone. One is either saved or not saved; there is 
no ambiguity. Any one who does not believe in Christ as Savior, 
who does not confess his sins and repent, who does not walk the 
aisle in a public profession to such ends is deemed simply as a 
candidate for hell. 

Moreover, I would remind you that the super churches are homo- 
geneous and preach the virtue of their homogeneity. They are class 
churches, made up of people of common interests, race, and group, 
who have fellowship with one another in the joy of being alike. 
Such churches do not agonize over discrimination, or poverty, or 
war, or ecological misbehavior. They have shut themselves away 
from the misery of the milling crowd and live unto themselves 
counting dollars and noses with undisguised joy. And because they 
have already made it all the way to the promised land, they want to 
hear how good it is for them to be there and they do not want to 

Things I Can't Preach and You Can't Hear 191 

hear about the troubles of those who have not made it socially, 
financially, or religiously speaking. 

I must be fair with you. I cannot blame you for not being the 
kind of people who make up a super church. I am glad that you are 
not. Even if you were and encouraged the kind of preaching which 
I have described, I would still be unable to preach in these themes. 
So, if we are agreed that we will not and cannot, either or both, 
engage in the kinds of religious exchanges and practices which 
seem to evolve into super churches, what kind of church should we 
be and what are we willing to do to become what we should? 

Will we and can we be a church which, rather than meeting its 
levy or paying its bills, will undergird and support its commit- 
ments? If I read you correctly, you wish to be a church which takes 
worship seriously, which wishes to be theologically and aesthetical- 
ly faithful in the conduct of worship, which wants to hear the Word 
proclaimed on the basis of revelation but under the scrutiny of 
reason, which wants fellowship both charitable and caring, which 
wishes to do evangelism in the name of Christ, which seeks to 
engage in mission to the total needs of the person supplying bread 
as well as the bread of life, which wants to do missions for the sake 
of the kingdom of God but also for the sake of this present world. So 
it is that we want a good church, at the local level, want to support 
the missions undertaken by those conventions with which we 
affiliate, want to preach salvation and engage in education, care, 
and healing. So we work with such things as Crisis Control, Con- 
tact, Hospice, and Prison Ministries. And we want to support uni- 
versities, hospitals, children's homes, and homes for the aging. We 
seek to alleviate world hunger and work in innovative ministries to 
our neighbors around the corner or down on skid row. And all the 
while we want preaching, music, religious education, fellowship, 
ministry to families and to the young. We want counseling and 
ministry of sympathetic compassion. What else? Surely, I have left 
out any number of things. If this then is the shape and nature of our 
commitment, let us remember that we must pay for it. And we 
need to remember that because our interests are varied — into so 
many things — that we are never sure that the church can do a 
better job than some other institution, so why not give to the latter? 
I will not argue the matter, I will only say that we are always in 

192 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

danger of expecting the church to do more for others and ourselves 
than is often reflected in our gifts. 

In the second place, if we cannot accept any source, touched by 
human minds and hands, as one inerrant and absolute in this 
authority, what source of authority will we mine? Are we going to 
make the mistake of depending entirely upon naturalism or ratio- 
nalism? Are we to suppose that since God's revelation must make 
its way through the sinful litter of ourselves or of others that there 
is no revelation in which to believe, which to recognize as authori- 
tative? Because we do not have an inerrant scripture, are we to toss 
the Bible aside as one book among others, despising its uniqueness 
as we measure it against contrary opinions and our own subjective 
preferences? Because the preacher is also human, does this mean 
that the pulpit has no special significance but is a podium from 
which a person presents his own opinion which is to be judged in 
the context of every other idea under the sun? Or are we willing to 
grant that God has indeed made of us special people, and the 
church a special instrument, for knowing him in Jesus Christ and 
for sharing our faith in proclamation or mission? In other words, 
will you believe that because you are a Christian, you have a role to 
fulfill in this world and age that only a Christian can fulfill, which 
is to say that what you have to do for and speak to the world is 
unique and indispensable? 

And if you draw back from the use of a "hell fire and brimstone 
gospel/' what is the nature of your concern for the lost and the 
unchurched? Is the matter of being church of such little concern to 
you, means so little to you, shapes your life so inconsequentially, 
that you cannot find the time nor give the bother of making a 
witness to another? Are we to suppose that, without definite lines 
between heaven and hell, there is no one out there who would 
prefer heaven to a state of ambiguity? Are we to suppose that, 
because there is no assurance of hell's lake of fire, there is no reason 
to declare to others the gospel of salvation? My friends in Christ, are 
we so embarrassed and so tentative about who and what we are 
that we hesitate to invite others to become a part of this community 
of faith, this church which God has put together in this place with 
his blessing? Have we no gospel with which to evangelize, no fold 
to which to bring the sheep straying ever farther away in the 
darkening hills? 

Things I Can't Preach and You Can't Hear 193 

And finally, if we cannot embrace joy because joy is not every- 
where about us, does this mean that we cannot have joy at all? Let 
me, I beg your permission, let me be an honest preacher instead of a 
dishonest optimist. Let me tell you of the black still suspect because 
he is black, of the poor, of the broken and broke, of the imprisoned, 
of the oppressed. Let me tell you of sin in places high and low, in 
our hearts and in the hearts of the people. Let me for God's sake tell 
you the truth of the human condition. Let me open your eyes and 
ears to that, so that you can never taste your joy at a banquet shut 
away from the reality of the street outside. And if you will let me do 
so, I will speak to you of joy. Joy over finding hidden treasure, joy 
over finding the pearl of great price, joy over the lost sheep, the 
prodigal come home, and joy, yes joy at seeing Christ there with 
hands outstretched quite visible despite the gloom. 

The Community of the Cross 

March 20, 1977 
John 12:27-36; Psalm 100 

Recent novels by Updike, Percy, and Cheever have this in com- 
mon. In each story, the main character finds some measure of hope 
for life while a resident of an institution. Updike and Percy set the 
scene in mental hospitals while Cheever uses a prison setting. 

No one can say for sure what lies behind this somewhat sudden 
trend of using institutions as the setting for a story. However, it is 
not too much to conjecture that it may reflect the impassioned 
longing that we moderns have for community. Mental hospitals 
and prisons are not the kind of communities one would usually 
yearn for, but they are communities in the sense of being set apart 
from the masses of society and also by virtue of their being well 
delineated. As a matter of fact, however distressing the thought, 
they are some of the only communities that are left in this land of 

The modern family, in which every member is primarily bent 
upon expressing one's individuality, no longer qualifies as a com- 
munity. We used to speak of neighborhood communities. There are 
no longer communities of this kind with the exception of the 
ghetto which is brought to bear by legal, social, and economic 
factors. We also used to go to neighborhood schools, which gave our 
children a sense of community. This is no longer the case. In this 
reference, I am beginning to think that blaming violence on TV for 
the violent character and action of America's young people is a cop- 
out. Without the family and the school, our children grow up 
without community to any real degree. The schools are busy at 
creating an egalitarian society in which excellence is discouraged 

196 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

and leadership is frowned upon. It may well be that the schoolroom 
is now capable of breeding more violence than could ever be ac- 
complished by movies and television. I am not prepared to wager 
that this is the case, but it is worthy of thought. Mobile, rootless, 
restless, mass produced adolescence, void of community, may be 
the ground of violence. 

Parker Palmer, dean of studies in a Quaker living-learning com- 
munity near Philadelphia, believes that the individual needs com- 
munity more than ever before. Mass society, in which individuals 
are now forced to live, is characterized by the fact that isolated 
persons are unable to relate to one another in ways that are free 
from the principalities and powers of the combination of business- 
labor and those of the state. Only by communities can an individ- 
ual find a mediator between himself and the principalities and the 
powers. Communities provide the lone person with some buffer 
zone so that he does not have to stand alone against the power of 
business, labor, and government. Communities amplify the "indi- 
vidual's small voice" so that those forces which oppress him cannot 
turn deaf when they do not wish to listen. 

Our search for communities is a practice marked by poignant 
reality and a saving wisdom. If we are not able to reestablish both 
the sense and reality of community within the masses of culture, 
we are indeed confronted with a bleak and foreboding future. 

Unfortunately, our passionate longing for community causes us 
to assume that any old community will do. It blinds us to the 
probability that a false community is no better, and perhaps worse, 
than no community at all. It can hardly be gainsaid that the most of 
what we are now deeming to be our communities are more false 
than they are real. 

Some years back, I heard this report of a conversation between 
two of our members. The first said to the other that some people in 
our church were besieging the diaconate with requests that it give 
its attention to creating more community among the membership. 
Then replied the second person to the one who had brought the 
report, "I know too many people already." 

When I first heard this, I quite naturally assumed that anyone 
who would retort in this way was not interested in community. 
That is not necessarily so. He may have been saying that he was not 

The Community of the Cross 197 

interested in false community. He may have intuited that commu- 
nity is more than people simply being together. Dietrich Bon- 
hoeffer once observed: "Nothing is easier than to stimulate [simu- 
late?] the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but 
nothing is more fatal to the sound sober . . . fellowship of everyday 

Our longing for community may be so desperate as to beguile us 
into developing and searching for false communities; by buying 
community in weekend chunks at human potential centers, by 
creating false Utopias in the practice of sharing personal relation- 
ships, and by finding a place and people where we can fulfill 
ourselves, thus expanding and extending our own egos under the 
guise of fellowship. 

If we are earnest and truthful in our search for genuine commu- 
nity, then we will not draw back from its authenticity when we are 
confronted by it. 

Community is not a word of the scriptures. Israel, that chosen 
community of God, spoke of itself as a people rather than a commu- 
nity. The difference in the words is not of immense significance. But 
we can understand why Israel should think of itself as the people of 
God because of the covenant between God and the Jews. They were 
Israel because God had made them so. These ancient people did not 
directly try to be a community. The effort usually falls of its own 
weight. They were, said the psalmist, committed to the truth'Tt is he 
that made us, and we are his." Genuine community is always called 
into being for some other reason than simply being community. 

Thus Israel said of itself, "We are his people, and the sheep of his 
pasture." Because community is called into being in this manner 
rather than coming to pass simply because people want to know 
one another and share with one another, then community cannot 
be a matter of direct fellowship between persons. Wrote Bonhoeffer, 
"Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire 
direct fellowship with them." This has to mean that the community 
cai mot be dissolved, if it is genuine, simply because the people no 
longer want to be together. It was not made in this way. It cannot be 
unmade in this way. One does not walk away from real community 
in a huff or by a whim. 

Genuine community is based on interaction on behalf of others. 

198 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

It is not merely a place where we're cured of our loneliness, accept- 
ed without question or judgment, and helped through our troubles. 
Genuine community affirms the person as well, by suggesting that 
even the least of us have something to give to others. Thus every 
authentic community demands economic, social, and political con- 
siderations on the part of its members. It is often characterized by a 
give and take because of ideological disagreement. It is a place of 
advocacy. And the main way one can be sure that he really wants 
genuine community is when he engages in it although the person 
or persons he would never choose to live with, by one's own 
standards, are inevitably there. For example, Christians are not to 
be measured by how much they like one another but by how much 
they love one another. 

Most of all community is gathered around a cause. It is there to 
act authentically for justice, love, and common decency. It is there to 
build families, to feed the poor, to advocate in behalf of the weak, to 
preserve nature, to study and to learn, and to stand against the 
exploitation by the principalities and the powers. 

Having made these distinctions between false and genuine com- 
munities, let me say that the church is the most promising commu- 
nity which remains alive in our present condition. I am free to say 
this because the church is surely built around a cause. There are few, 
in any, congregations in which general consensus and a human 
affinity for one another would exist materially enough for the body 
to stay together. Indeed when a church is nothing more than a 
mutual admiration society, it will not risk breaking up the fellow- 
ship by tackling the tough issues of the time. The church is the only 
body I know which is still willing to risk being community in that 
place between the realistic distress of our time and that of a joyful 

Of course, its cause is the cause of Christ; that is to proclaim the 
gospel and to participate in the coming of the kingdom of God. This 
is what gathers us into community and it is a community which 
makes upon us a covenant claim, into which we are baptized as 
new persons, and from which we cannot simply walk away as if it 
makes no difference since we no longer want to have fellowship. 

Christ stands between us so that we cannot relate to one another 
except in him. That is the reason that sometimes it is best of us to 

The Community of the Cross 199 

pray for one another than try to iron out our differences in endless 
talk. That is the reason that it is usually more fruitful to talk to 
Christ about our brother than to talk to our brother about Christ. 

Thank God that while the world snorts its derision at tradition, 
the church is still in its tradition. The family the neighborhood, and 
the school — the university — all have managed somehow, many 
times through no fault of their own, to lose their traditions. The 
church has not. 

It has not because it has clung to its central symbol that is the 
symbol of the cross. With gracious wisdom, God has made clear to 
us this central truth. We would not be community — people of God, 
household of faith, body of Christ — if the resurrection had been 
only the triumph over death by a Jew named Jesus without any 
reference to the kind of death he died. It was a death that, when 
being lifted up from earth on the cross, drew all people unto him- 
self. It is this which makes the difference, almost an inexpressible 

It is then this symbol which is at the top of the steeple, on altars 
and tables in the sanctuary, and is carried in religious processions. It 
does have the drawing power which Christ alluded to in John's 
gospel, however incredible it may seem that the symbol of our faith 
which has the strongest pull upon the faithful is the symbol of the 

No other symbol of faith has persisted as has this one through 
the years. No other symbol has been so imperishable as it has 
existed through the years and survived as a tradition. Strange as 
this may be, it is understandable because if a person lives by the 
cross, that person is sure to be an integral part of community, a 
community gathered around the dying and living Christ, a com- 
munity acting in behalf of others and interacting thusly, and a 
community with a cause. 

I was not surprised that you made no requests for last Sunday's 
sermon. Then I spoke of my grieving because a broken and sinful 
world still refused to hear and heed the gospel. And of my grief 
because I had failed to proclaim it in power so that it would be 
heard. And of your inability to console me because of your own 
failure at proclamation. 

Some of you worried about the state of my physical and emotion- 

200 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

al health as a result of the sermon. Some of you felt that I had 
forgotten my script and left the sermon unfinished. Some won- 
dered at the absence of some shout of joy. And some were glad to get 
out into the sunshine and away from the gloom. 

There have been some efforts to make me happy since last Sun- 
day. But I refuse to be happy over the cross and over the state of this 
world. I shall continue to grieve until the world hears the word of 
the gospel, that Christ has died for our sins. But grief is not the same 
thing as despair. Grief is a sign of caring and despair is a sign of 
giving up, even giving up caring. I am not filled with despair. 
Despite grief, I rejoice in the community of the cross. Even if I do 
not smile all the time, I am glad to be with as many of you who 
want to live in that community. It is the only one there is. 

On Doing the Morally Possible 

June 3, 1973 
Romans 13:1-10; Job 1:6-12 

As I draw near to the end of nine years in this pulpit, I am sure 
that I have asked this church to be what it could hardly be and to do 
what it could hardly do, and have done so more than once or twice. 
Some of these suggested ventures are no longer within immediate 
recall. At least two of them are more easily remembered because the 
congregation responded in unusually affirmative ways. 

The first suggestion had to do with the prophetic use of money. 
We looked at our stewardship and discovered that we were almost 
exclusively engaged in the priestly use of money. We used it to 
provide therapy rather than prevention. We provided more cures 
than prophetic confrontation of the causes which made the cures 

The suggestion was studied with some thoroughness. As a result, 
it seemed quite evident that there was really little that could be 
done to change or modify our practice. 

Another suggestion raised the question of whether or not this 
congregation could play the role of advocate. Could it speak and act 
in behalf of others, who, for whatever reasons, could not speak or 
act in their own behalf? 

A good number of our members responded with enthusiasm. We 
now have a committee on advocacy as one of the standing commit- 
tees in the church. This committee is at work endeavoring to dis- 
cover possible opportunities for the church to serve as an advocate. 
It is too early to tell what fruits may be born from this planting. 
There is enough evidence already in, however, to suggest that the 
harvest may be slow and reluctant. 

202 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

We should not be surprised or disheartened by these discoveries. 
The shape of our tradition as Judeo-Christians offers a partial expla- 
nation. The prophet has always been more individual than com- 
munal. Most of the time, his is a lonely and isolated voice. The 
community of faith has mostly been healing, comforting and re- 

Our scriptures were formed after the fact of the fall. Sin and evil 
were already recognized and operative when they came into being. 
So our scripture has little to say about planning a perfect society or 
prophetically preventing whatever might inhibit its realization. 

At present, we see little chance for making more prophetic use of 
money. The question of advocacy is still open ended. 

Instead of throwing in the towel in the face of these realities, I 
wish to suggest a third option. Perhaps the church cannot make 
prophetic use of money. Perhaps it can but very seldom serve as an 
advocate. I believe that it can, but that the occasions will be rare and 
well defined. 

But I am sure that the church can be a community of moral dis- 
course. I am much indebted to James M. Gustafson, Chicago Uni- 
versity's Divinity School professor, for this phrase. I should like to 
give him due credit for his contribution to my thought in this 
sermon and desist from numerous and specific quotations. 

Such a role does not exhaust the work of the church. But in a time 
when we have lost sight of ethical considerations, when moral 
clarity is at a premium, and when sensitive souls are thrashing 
about in search of the better way, the church must not withdraw 
from the moral arena. 

As a community of moral discourse, the church can find suffi- 
cient precedent in its scripture and tradition. Paul's letter to the 
Romans about one's relationship to government indicates that the 
church was concerned with its place in the political arena from the 
beginning. Furthermore, Paul was wrestling with what constituted 
the proper and morally right position of the Christian to the gov- 

Let us look at the possibility of the church as a community of 
moral discourse. 

This is not something which the church must become. It is what 
it already is. The challenge to be such a community is a challenge to 

On Doing the Morally Possible 203 

exercise its nature. Because the church is a moral community, there 
is no moral or ethical question with which it is not concerned. The 
church may question its overall competence to deal with the 
weighty issues of society but never because the Word and the 
gospel are irrelevant to them. 

If the church is not competent, it is not because it has failed to 
achieve expertise in the complex problems of society. It is because it 
does not know the Word and gospel as it ought to know them. Word 
and gospel are relevant. Make no mistake about that. 

This being the case, it is not necessary for the church to try to be 
relevant. It already is with respect to moral and ethical issues with- 
in society. With this as a reality, every Christian community has a 
peculiar obligation to itself and to society in general. 

This obligation is grounded in the fact that the church alone is a 
community which gathers naturally for moral discourse. No other 
group or body constitutes itself for this purpose. Someone may 
wish to pose the possibility that courts of law are convened to 
determine what is right and wrong. But they are committed to legal 
rather than moral decisions. Even if a law is possibly immoral, the 
court must uphold that law until it is changed. 

I am not contending that the church is the only body engaging in 
moral discourse. I am contending that it is the only body to which 
such discourse is a natural expression of one of the purposes of its 
existence. Other groups may, on special occasions, convene for 
moral discourse. But this is usually contrived around a particular 
issue. The church, on the other hand, is a regularly constituted 
body in which moral discourse is one of its expected and regular 

Therefore, its own members and society at large may reasonably 
expect the church to deal with moral issues at all times. In order to 
meet its responsibility, the Christian community through its pulpit, 
in Christian education, and in its various study groups should whet 
its ethical keeness and perception by consistently engaging in mor- 
al discourse. 

The moral discourse of the church ought to be marked by two or 
three basic characteristics. 

First of all, the fact that it is a moral discourse means that the 
church so engaged must carefully define its moral posture. There is 

204 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

no reason for the church to discuss morality from any other point of 
view. It is useless if it is simply trying to reach some moral consen- 
sus from participating members. 

When the church is dealing with morality, it must therefore be 
informed by scripture and by the tradition of its faith. The Bible is 
not only and exhaustively a document on ethics. But it does tell us 
of what God has done for man, and what is his will for man and 
what are his requirements for life. 

No matter what may be the specific subject with which it is 
dealing — politics, family, poverty, war, et al — the church must 
bring to bear its scripture and its faith upon each and all of them. 

Among the many reasons that this is true, is that the average 
political, economic, or other kind of expert may be speaking from 
his enlightened self-interest. He is an expert who has reason to be 
expert in that particular category. 

The scriptures of the church have made their decision on this 
matter. In that delightful myth of Satan's conversation with God, 
the question of Job's excellent morality was on the agenda. And 
Satan argued that Job was good because God's blessings on Job had 
bribed him to be good. God countered with an offer to allow all the 
blessings to be taken from Job. Only his life was to be spared. His 
contention was that Job would continue to be a moral man. In the 
mind of God, morality stemming from self-enlightened interest 
was not authentic. 

Thus the church works at the question of right and wrong not for 
the self-fulfillment of its members. Not for any feeling that good 
has been done. Not for what it will mean in good reward for 
members. But for the sake of establishing what is right and wrong. 
One of the reasons that the church can establish some central 
morality is that it postures against doing what is right for the sake 
of reward. Its belief in grace releases it to pursue the question of 
morality in terms of the objective will of God. 

A second mark of the church's discourse on morality is the at- 
tempt to involve all who are concerned. This is the mark of the 
church's failure as well. For example, as a usual rule, when the 
church and the economic expert are discussing the question of 
poverty, neither of the discussants is likely to suffer the pangs of 
poverty. This gives the kind of objectivity which is needed. But the 

On Doing the Morally Possible 205 

poor, who suffer poverty, and the rich, who will possibly have to be 
soaked and good, if poverty is to be eliminated, will seldom be in 
the discourse. One of the reasons that the church is not as effective 
in moral discourse as it could be is that it does not have all the 
people represented. There is need for rich and poor, intellectuals 
and common man, young and old, as well as a spectrum of different 
races and classes when the church is engaged in moral discourse. 

Yet another characteristic has to do with language. Whenever the 
church tries to use language that is not its own language in moral 
discourse, it goes awry. The church is characterized by moral lan- 
guage as much as by salvation language. It is concerned with right 
and wrong, good and evil, better and worse, even wise and foolish 
as much as by redemption, comfort, wholeness, and the like. 

When it engages in questions of social morality, it will have to 
speak in political, economic, sociological, and psychological lan- 
guage, to name a few. But it must realize that this is not its common 
language. And it must make sure that its own language is not 
usurped or preempted. 

When someone is advised by a secularist, for example, to do what 
is right for him, the church knows and must aver that this is not a 
moral statement. Nor must the church allow advice such as do 
what you are comfortable in doing, do what is pleasant, do what is 
rewarding to be legitimized as moral advice. As a matter of fact, 
there is no substitute for the word sin no more than there is a 
substitute for the word salvation. 

Most sermons I preach are open-ended from beginning to end. I 
am departing from that style this morning. As we look to the 
summer ahead where this church, in particular, is more reflective 
than active, I want us to reflect and act on this challenge. 

I hope that some of you will venture to move that we incorporate 
in the bylaws of this church, that any members singly or together 
shall have authority to call the church into moral discourse when a 
particular issue merits that kind of action, from your point of view. 
In other words, whether it is Watergate or the extension of Silas 
Creek Parkway, the war or more tennis courts in the city, the en- 
largement of the coliseum or Ten-and-a-Half Street, a member has 
the right to ask his Christian brothers to share the faith with him. 

Action or resolution may or may not be forthcoming. But the 

206 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

light of the Christian ethic can and ought to be brought to bear. And 
the Christian has the right to expect that from his fellowmen of 

I could believe that if this were to become our stance and practice, 
that the community might wish to exercise its right to ask the 
church to do the same thing. 

Let us put this on our agenda and see what we can do with it. 
Perhaps we cannot be prophetic with our money. It may be that the 
opportunities for advocacy are rare. But it certainly is possible for us 
to become a community of moral discourse. It certainly is possible 
for the church to convene itself when asked to share the truth with 
a brother inside or outside the church. And I am sure that if we do 
not ask ourselves, no one on the outside will ever think of it. 

The Symbolic People of God 

July 9, 1972 
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:22-24; I Corinthians 12:27-13:13 

In his very fine Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove, Michael 
Novak avers that "the dominant religious form in nations like the 
United States appears to be an 'invisible religion' of the private 
psyche, dependent upon the 'consumer preference' of the private 
individual." Because of this, "It is very difficult for those who share 
the stands of today's invisible religion to feel at home in a commu- 
nal celebration of earth, of memory, of hope, of modest expectation 
and chastened reconciliation. For the powerful currents of modern 
religion suggest that man 'masters' the earth, is 'autonomous/ is 
fulfilled in 'privacy,' and is reconciled to nothing but his own naked 

Novak goes on to say that "the private psyche carries an unparal- 
leled burden: the task of making sense out of life, all alone." As he 
sees it, "The mode of invisible religion is solitary pathos." 

Very few of us, if any, have been left untouched by the current 
prevalence of private and often invisible religion. It affects us more 
than we know even when we are not aware that it has gotten close 
enough to have influence. So much that is going on under the 
umbrella of religious renewal has the quality of privacy about it. We 
are so weary of the invasion of our privacy by every kind of 
snooping pressure under the sun. It is little wonder that we turn to 
religion as a means of achieving and maintaining a personal and 
private dimension of our lives. Perhaps this partially explains the 
increasing concern we share for the things of the Spirit. Like the 
wind, it "blows where it will and you hear the sound of it, but do 
not know whence it comes or whither it goes." Our current apathy 

208 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

toward corporate and organized religion may be because it is visible 
while the religion of the spirit is conceded to be invisible. 

Perhaps the person who contends that his religion is a very 
personal matter not to be let out for public consumption operates 
on the same emotional level. When one explains that he has his 
own religion and is entitled to it just as much as the next man, he 
may be basing his aversion to religious dialogue on his desire for 
religious anonymity or invisibility. 

In any event, religion has now become a means to privacy. It is 
jealously guarded by those who have worked their way into this 
position. As often as not, if one wishes to talk religion with us, he is 
regarded as an intruder upon our personal and private lives. 

Novak has already cautioned us about the dangers of this invisi- 
ble religion. Individuals under the aegis of this religion are intoler- 
ably burdened with the task of making sense out of life all alone. 
For religion is certainly the juncture at which a person is expected 
to find the meaning of life. As Peter Berger has previously warned, 
'Trying to keep up one's own counterdefinitions of the world, all to 
oneself, is an invitation to meaninglessness." So if one uses religion 
in this way, he skirts the precipices of "nightmare par excellence/' 
Novak's dreadful observation bears repetition: "The mode of invisi- 
ble religion is solitary pathos." 

Both Novak and Berger inadvertently reveal the pervasiveness of 
invisible religion even as they warn against it. For their cautions are 
directed to the private individual. In other words, they speak pri- 
marily about what will happen to the individual who has such 

Of equal importance is what happens to the community of be- 
lievers, the religion of the people. For, if and when my brother or 
sister in Christ is determined to do his own thing in the religious 
category, he or she has dismissed me from the place where our lives 
may be most fruitfully joined. A no trespassing sign is hung over 
the most fertile ground of human interchange and relationships. If 
I insist that I have my faith and you have yours, and never the 
twain shall meet, reciprocity and mutuality are effectively enjoined 
and we can neither give nor receive at life's most dynamic levels. 

To decide that one's religion will not be subject to publication is to 
decide against publishing good tidings of peace and love. It is to 

The Symbolic People of God 209 

decide against being a witness or an evangelist. Faith is then crip- 
pled beyond repair whether it be individual or corporate. In the 
final analysis, what purports to be invisible religion ensues in 
something that is dead or nonexistent. 

The conclusion is inevitable. Religion is never used more per- 
versely than as a means to and an excuse for our personal privacy. 
Where communion and unity are most indicated and have the 
better chance for occurrence, namely religion, disassociation and 
alienation take place. That is perversity at its zenith. 

We must make a choice at this point. Much could be said about 
the reasons for invisible religion. Emphasis upon honesty; aversion 
to shame, hypocrisy, and idolatry; the yen to withdraw from tech- 
nocratic intrusions upon our personal lives: all of these are vastly 
significant on the scene. 

However, it will probably be more fruitful to surmise the means 
that we use, and which everyone must use, in order to come to the 
category of invisible religion. Along that line, we can concentrate 
effectively upon one point. In order to secure and maintain an 
invisible religion, one must do away with all religious symbols. 
Religion becomes visible through its symbols. If one opts for an 
invisible religion, he must discard religious symbols which bring 
his faith into public notice. 

And this is surely what is taking place all along the line. We are 
trying on a religion that has nothing of the symbolic and we are 
religiously naked and empty as a result. This is a far cry from our 
forebears of faith. The one thing about them that stands out is that 
they were the "symbolic people of God/' 

At the very beginning of their written saga — that we call 
scripture — the use of symbol is clear. Their relationship with God, 
beginning in covenant and ending with the alienation of disobedi- 
ence, was symbolized by the two trees of Eden: the tree of the 
knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Because the first 
two disobeyed God and plundered the tree of knowledge, they no 
longer had free access to the tree of life. Such is the drama of the 
"fall of man" and probably the drama of the fall of the entire 
creation. A religion professor has shared with me his dismay to 
learn that his class of students has no idea of what he meant when 
he spoke of the fallenness of man. They were ignorant of the 

210 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

doctrine of the fall. And they were most likely ignorant of the 
drama of the two trees of Eden. I cannot help but wonder how his 
congregation might fare under similar circumstances. Of one thing 
I am sure, those of us who want our religion private and invisible 
cut down both of those trees a long time ago, for their vivid sym- 
bols stand athwart any path to a private faith. 

When the apostle Paul spoke of the church or churches which he 
had organized across his world, he referred to them as the "body of 
Christ/' Our text for the morning moves majestically from a refer- 
ence to the body into Paul's great hymn of love. He has advised the 
Corinthians that they are the body of Christ and individually mem- 
bers of it. They are cast individually according to their gifts and 
talents for service. But then Paul speaks of the more excellent way. 
If I speak with the tongue of men and angels and have not love . . . 
Surely, we will not claim that he was speaking of private or invisi- 
ble love. It would corrupt the whole to maintain that Paul was 
thinking of the love of individuals. He was referring to the loving 
body of the church. Let each man do what he is gifted to do. 

But, although he speaks in first person, it is clear that these 
individual talents are meaningless without the visible and loving 
body which he called church. 

A major contradiction of the present is that love is increasingly 
parroted at the same time that invisible religion is on the march. I 
do not think that contradiction can last. No love can come from an 
invisible religion. For love always makes religion visible. And that 
has to mean in the long run that there can be no love in an invisible 

This pattern holds true across the board. The late Paul Tillich 
once wrote, "The individual can devise signs for his own private 
needs; he cannot make symbols. This is because first of all a symbol 
must be socially acceptable. That is its initial genius. Furthermore, a 
symbol is not exchangeable for another symbol to represent the 
same reality. It cannot be exchanged. It only dissolves and disap- 
pears when it loses its inner power. 

Tillich has never been easy to understand. But he seems to have 
said two things in this regard. There are no symbols in invisible 
religion because symbols must be perceived and appropriated by 
society. Second, when a symbol disappears, it is not replaced by 

The Symbolic People of God 211 

another one representing the same reality, but rather it disappears 
because the reality it has represented is dead and nonexistent. 

Before completely disagreeing, perhaps you should try to love 
another without the use of symbols. Do away with hand shakes 
and the kiss. Cease the symbolic acts of care and kindness. Maybe 
you can assure yourself with some private signs that you are a lover. 
But how can you tell the other. And if you cannot tell another, if you 
are a lover with no one to love, how long can you convince yourself 
that love is still at work in you. Before long your love will not only 
be hidden from another but from yourself as well. 

Is it not time to see whether there are meaningful and lasting 
symbols of faith in our midst? We need not take on the world in this 
respect; the record of the matter very close at home may be enough 
to dismay us. 

I am sure that this tack will get me into hot water. Since I have 
never been able to walk even on cold water, I am likely to emerge 
from this hour as a boiled preacher. 

But I first want to say that Wake Forest University cannot main- 
tain a religion if it keeps it invisible. If it persists in letting the 
symbols of the secular take precedence over the symbols of the 
saved, it will then be secular not only in appearance but in reality. 
We were upset to hear and read of the attack upon Baptist Hospital 
and the medical school and indirectly on the university only last 
week. But most of that criticism comes because the symbols of faith 
in these institutions are no longer as evident as they used to be. 
They are no longer in the showcase but locked up in the closet. 

Only yesterday I saw an often repeated sight. A group of young- 
sters, obviously from a church, possibly a rural Baptist church, were 
led to the front of the chapel by their sponsors. You could hear their 
words of expectancy. This is the chapel. Now we are going to see the 
chapel! But the chapel was locked. A small thing? Not necessarily. It 
may be locked because so little goes on in here, including what we 
do, that will properly reflect the architecture. 

The table before me sometimes holds a cross and sometimes 
holds a mace. There is room for both. A mace among other things is 
an ornament "borne as a symbol of authority before a public official 
or a legislative body." As it comes down in front of the academic 
procession at convocation, baccalauareate, commencement, I thrill 

212 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

to its meaning. It speaks of the freedom of the university to pursue 
truth, it speaks of the freedom of the president and his staff and 
faculty. It suggests that the university is made up of these people in 
the chiefest sense of the years. 

But sometimes a cross is here. I think there is room for both. But I 
will defy any man who says that the mace must completely replace 
the cross of this is to be a great university. He will then have to 
contend with me and, I hope, with you. And the only authority I 
have to take that position is as a soldier of the cross. But if my Lord 
died for every man, I have a right to speak to him about the Lord. 

Which brings us even closer. Will we continue, so many of us, to 
try to be children of God and not of church. Then we have lost our 
symbol. Will we remain secretly religious with one another? Will 
the stranger have to take for granted that he is our friend in Christ, 
for granted because we never greet him, extend ourselves to him. 
Maybe the worst thing that has ever happened is that churches 
should not be known as friendly or unfriendly churches, caring or 
uncaring churches. 

The water has indeed gotten hot, and I had better get out while I 
can. Let us hope that the steam is not so thick that we cannot see 
each other's banners, lifted high, making faith visible. 

Guilt and Forgiveness 

June 8, 1974 
Habakkuk 1:1-11; John 9:35-41 

Paulus is one book I wish I had never read. Subtitled Reminis- 
cences of a Friendship, it is Rollo May's account of his times and 
experiences with the late Paul Tillich, who was one of the theologi- 
cal and philosophical giants of the current century. 

I wish that I had not read the book because I am somewhat 
disappointed in both its subject and its author. I am more disap- 
pointed in Rollo May than I am in Tillich. Since I never really 
understood Tillich and only pretended to do so when trying to 
impress my peers, my disappointment in him is necessarily re- 
stricted. One cannot greatly esteem whom he does not understand 
and therefore has less esteem to lose when the time comes. Thus the 
book's disclosures of his unfaithfulness to his wife Hannah, of his 
frequent and often sadistic sexual experiences outside the marriage, 
and of his godlike throne of sand on the beaches of the North Sea 
did not throw me into spasms of dismay. 

My major disappointment is with Rollo May, a most distin- 
guished analyst and exciting author. Because of my assumption 
that I have been able to understand May with his blend of psychiat- 
ric and religious orientation, the stance of his life and thought is of 
real importance to me. My life and ministry have been influenced 
by Barth, Brunner, Berger, Bultmann, the two Niebuhr brothers, 
and Michael Novak among modern thinkers and writers. I am also 
indebted to novelists the like of Peter De Vries, Iris Murdoch, 
Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy on the contemporary scene. I 
do not think I am trying to parade my erudition or pose as a person 
of letters as much as I am trying to assert my honest appreciation 

214 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

for Rollo May. For I would add to this galaxy of the great, according 
to my estimation, the names of Karl Menninger and Rollo May as 
two of the greatest figures in psychiatry. May's two latest books, 
Love and Will and Power and Innocence, have meant as much to me as 
anything I have read in the last ten years, more or less. 

I am of no mind to discard my books by May nor to discredit his 
essential worth as a person, psychiatrist, and author. But as a result 
of reading Paulus, I would confront May with the question in the 
title of Karl Menninger 's latest offering, Whatever Became of Sin? I 
am afraid that although May once knew the answer to that ques- 
tion, he has apparently lost it in the secular shuffle. 

Although it strikes me as an unusual pose for him, May seems to 
have looked on Paul Tillich from a perspective akin to that of the 
prophet, Habakkuk. That is to say, he did not like to see what he 
saw in Tillich. He saw a powerful figure whose basic flaw was the 
worship of his own might and strength, which meant that he was 
not subject to the same principles as average people. 

One can almost hear May parroting Habakkuk's cry: "Why dost 
thou make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? ... So the law is 
slacked and justice never goes forth." May falls prey to his own 
warnings about worshipping the mighty. Either we are so envious 
as to take joy in the toppling of the strong from their throne or we 
worship them to the point of being unable to bring judgment upon 
them. They are excused of their failures and sins which breed our 
contempt for lesser men. 

One way to do this is to give wrong or sin the element of 
necessity. In Tillich's case, May explains that his sexual libido, sa- 
dism, philandering were necessary in the search for his mother, 
who died when Tillich was a boy of seventeen. Tillich's sexuality is 
described as sensuality in the service of eros, making of all his illicit 
relationships a drive to a higher goal. According to May, Tillich's 
sadism was a desperate attempt to break through the "skin barrier " 
because of his deep need to reach someone. Or to quote May, "Thus 
the beloved woman is the way to God, playing a role not unlike 
Mary in Roman Catholicism." Had not Paulus said at least on one 
occasion, "Women are closer to God." You must forgive me for a 
quip. It seems to have escaped May — I cannot say for Tillich — 
that the Mary of record was a virgin and that the Roman Catholic 
Church insists that she remained so forever. 

Guilt and Forgiveness 215 

Let me be the first to say that there is truth in each of the analyses 
of Tillich by May. And we ought to be reminded that Tillich is not 
the first great person, religious or otherwise, to have strayed from 
the straight and narrow. David and Bathsheba is but one example of 
this reality. 

The deeper bother here is that May, much like the Jesuit priest on 
the White House staff, seems to think that Tillich's affairs were 
therapeutic and therefore necessary. Along with the rest of us, May 
needs the Niebuhrian reminder: ". . . man sins inevitably, yet with- 
out escaping responsibility for his sin. This has ushered in the 
dictum, based on Niebuhr's thought, "Sin is inevitable but not 

Of those with psychological bent, Menninger seems to under- 
stand that dictum best of all. In his book, Whatever Became of Sin, 
Menninger traces the shift from sin to crime, thus from church to 
court, and the shift from crime to sickness, thus from courtroom to 
the analyst's couch. It is then but a short distance from the idea that 
since sin is therapeutic, this makes it necessary, which in turn 
means that it is not sin. 

In response to such a position, let us hear again the words of Jesus 
in that situation when he helped the man who had been blind from 
birth. "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not 
see may see, and that those who see may become blind." Some of 
the Pharisees asked, not without derision, "Are we also blind?" 
Jesus replied, "If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now 
that you say, 'We see," your guilt remains." 

Whether by psychological or theological means, or just by com- 
mon sense, to be able to see, know, and understand one's actions 
makes him all the more responsible for them. Our modern inclina- 
tion is to find sociological, psychological, or theological justification 
for our mistakes and our sins. We fail to admit, in the same context, 
that this ought to make us more rather than less responsible for 
what we do. If there is no problem, there is no need for analysis. If 
analysis, of whatever kind, informs us of the reason for our prob- 
lem, of the forces which make us sin, then we are both responsible 
and guilty to a greater rather than a lesser degree. 

I am not engaged in the production of guilt complexes and 
feelings among us. I am constrained to suggest that guilt is a con- 
structive asset to life, if we will accept responsibility and seek 

216 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

solution. Nor am I discrediting the valuable contribution of psy- 
chological insights. In the complexity of life as it now is, the psychi- 
atrist in uncovering the fact of one's guilt complexes, particularly 
guilt feelings that are not connected with the realtiy of sin, frees a 
person to deal with real guilt instead of pseudo-guilt. Too many of 
us are like the woman whose life was a series of profoundly sinful 
experiences, but who felt guilty only about stealing some time at 
her lunch hour to get in thirty minutes of shopping. 

Religion takes over when real guilt has been uncovered. That is 
to say when man has sinned and knows guilt in terms of sin, 
whether of an individual or corporate nature, man is then in need 
of forgiveness. In view of the fact that, although he has apparently 
sinned only against his fellow men, one never sins against a broth- 
er without his first sin being against God, forgiveness is always 
primarily an experience between God and persons. Whether or not 
a person believes in God has nothing to do with whether or not he 
has sinned against God. If he offends his fellow man, this is done 
within the arena of God's creation and God's dominion. Therefore, 
sin is always in context of sin against God. 

I could spin wheels for quite a while arguing against the popular 
notion that there are enough rules within human ethics to deal 
with guilt and sin against a brother and to handle the entire matter 
without recourse to God. Rather than engaging in an endless de- 
bate to that end, let us look at forgiveness in the light of God. 

First of all sin and guilt deal with fundamental realities in the 
whole of life. Only from the perspective of transcendence is one 
able to see the profound dimensions of sin. Let us hope that Patty 
Hearst is apprehended before she and others are annihilated. We 
may presume that Miss Hearst is mentally, emotionally, or socio- 
logically ill. In that case, she would need the best treatment avail- 
able. But if only this tack were to be taken, Miss Hearst would miss 
the reality of her own condition. The hatred she now expresses for 
people and members of her own family can hardly be described or 
justified in terms of mental illness. Nor may we excuse her as 
having been brainwashed. She is right, she has not been brain- 
washed, she is murderously enraged. Her family may or may not 
be at fault. Who can say? Her background may or may not be 
relevant. Who can say? What can be said is that her freedom now to 

Guilt and Forgiveness 217 

call her loved ones "pigs" is to be understood as sin only in the light 
of a transcendent dimension, only from the perspective of God. 
One of the worst things we have done to the young generation is -to 
suggest and believe that they are always sick and never sinful. Thus 
we give them no chance to know the truth about themselves. 

Secondly it is not within our power to heal the wounds we 
commit upon others. To be sure we may seek forgiveness from one 
we have offended and it may be granted. That can heal the es- 
trangement that may have occurred as a result of our offense. This 
in itself does not guarantee a total healing. Furthermore, we often 
hurt others without awareness in an individual sense. So in the 
long run, it is necessary for us to know that we are forgiven by God 
as well and to believe that his grace is sufficient for those whom we 
may have hurt. In other words, what God does for the hurt that we 
impose upon others is always more than we may do no matter how 
good our intentions. 

A final reality, often overlooked by us, is what we may do as the 
result of guilt unforgiven. All too often, in this context we may 
overdo the work of compensation. A philandering father, an alco- 
holic mother, a rebellious child, each or all will sometimes feel so 
great a burden of guilt as to think they are totally responsible for 
the tragedy that may strike. Then over-indulgence of children, or 
the absence of demand and fidelity necessary to marriage, or the 
openness of genuine friendships are lost in the welter of one who 
tries to make up for his sins. Forgiveness is not cheap but it is 
liberating. And when we confess our sins, our guilt is then forgiv- 
en, and we are free to live with others in the best possible sense. 

On Explaining Ourselves 
to God 

October 9, 1983 
Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17, 3:22-24; Luke 23:32-38 

It takes as much knowledge, perhaps more, in today's world to be 
a prophet as it takes courage. In other words, whoever will pro- 
claim God to the world must also explain God. Whoever will de- 
clare the word of God must also explain the word of God. A wide- 
spread skepticism brought to bear partially, I would assume, from 
the knowledge explosion has put the preaching of the gospel some- 
what on the defensive. Religion has always called this defensive 
preaching by the fancy word apologetics, but it does add up to a kind 
of an apology and to somewhat of an explanation of God. The 
pulpit is on the defensive, the church is on the defensive, and 
therefore to some extent, at the hands of the pulpit and the church, 
God is on the defensive. 

I have found this to be true, certainly, in my own preaching. As a 
prophet I have become more and more the apologist, dealing in 
apologetics. The more one thunders, "Woe is you if you are not a 
believer, if you do not obey the will of God," the more one discovers 
that God has to be explained. I find myself, even as I fancy myself 
as a prophet, somehow saying, "Please, even pretty please, hear the 
word of God, do the will of God, not so much for your own sake, but 
for God's sake and perhaps for the sake of the church." 

The main difference in all of this from times past is that one has 
always had to be an apologist to the world, to the unbeliever. But 
now one must deal apologetically and in apologetics with the 
church. So it is not only to the world outside that I must explain 
God and explain the word of God, I must do it also to you, and you 


220 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

must do it for me. One is tempted always in this kind of situation to 
thunder all the more as a courageous prophet in stentorian and 
articulate terms. But that will be to no avail; people are no longer 
frightened by God. So how may we get God off the defensive? 

I think perhaps the role of today's pulpit is, as often as not, to turn 
from being prophet to being priest. For if it be true that the prophet 
speaks for God, represents God and, therefore, in our society has to 
explain God, then I would suppose that the priest who speaks for 
the people to God, represents the people to God, must also, there- 
fore, explain the people to God and, in this case, explain ourselves. 
That may indeed put us on the defensive. Think for a moment how 
you would explain yourselves to God today — in this priesthood of 
believers that we embrace, how you, speaking for yourself, would 
explain yourself to God. And since we are not only priest to self in 
the priesthood of believers but also priest to one another, then let us 
raise that other question: How may I explain you to God? How 
should I represent you to God? And how may you represent me and 
speak for me and explain me to God? 

I am sure that we would not be satisfied with the kinds of 
explanations that come out of some of the central stories of the Old 
Testament. Adam, when talking for himself about the reason that 
he plundered the forbidden tree, said in effect, "Well, God, I didn't 
do it. The woman that you gave me brought me that fruit, and since 
the damage had already been done, I saw no reason not to eat it." 
Now, the fact of the matter is that Adam squealed on his wife. But 
she was only an afterthought, right? How do you like that explana- 
tion for disobedience? 

Then there was Jeremiah, one of the times when Jeremiah gave 
up being a prophet for being a priest. The Lord had said to Jeremi- 
ah, "Go into the streets of Jerusalem because Jerusalem is in trouble. 
But I will spare Jerusalem; if you will go into the streets and find 
one truthful person, one just person there, I will spare the whole 
city." Jeremiah didn't even bother to go. He said, "Lord, the street 
people of Jerusalem are poor, and because they are poor, they don't 
have any sense; and because they are poor and don't have any 
sense, they are, therefore, not honest, or truthful, or just. So I'm not 
even going to look." What a priest! And do you know, that kind of 
mentality still exists today. We continue to insult the poor by saying 

On Explaining Ourselves to God 221 

that if they're poor, they have no sense, they don't know any better, 
and their lack of justice and truthfulness is justified because they 
are blighted by poverty. What an insult to the poor! Had I lived in 
Jeremiah's time, I would have said, "My friend, you are a great 
prophet, but if you do not mind, I'll find me another priest, because 
the way you would explain me to God is not according to my 

And then there was Jonah, explaining himself to God and say- 
ing, in effect, "I didn't go to Nineveh, and the reason I've been 
running from you is that if I went to Nineveh and I preached your 
word, those people would repent. You are a soft-hearted God, and 
you would forgive all of them and redeem them. So I didn't go 
because I want Nineveh to go to hell." Another explanation. 

These are only three, not very comforting, not very promising, 
but about the way that we would be, I think, if we had to be priest 
for ourselves or priest for one another in explaining ourselves to 

I never realized until recently that the most incredible event in 
the New Testament time, that most shattering occasion of all of 
history has no explanation except by the one who was the victim of 
it. I'm talking about the cross, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Read 
all the stories of the crucifixion that you will; the only explanation 
is given by the one who hangs there. The victim of the cross 
becomes the priest to the people who crucified him. His explana- 
tion is "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. 
Father, forgive them, they think they're doing the right thing. They 
do not know what they're doing." Now let us not have to do at all 
with the lame excuse that that's something that happened a long 
time ago and has been alternately blamed upon Roman and Jew. If 
you accept the forgiveness of Christ at all, then you're a participant 
in the event of the cross. You and I are ones who make the victim, 
and the victim for us becomes the priest who says to forgive us 
because we do not know what we're doing. 

Modern day thinkers have an explanation for the crucifixion. 
The likes of Rollo May and Paul Tillich and others have suggested 
by indirection, and sometimes even directly, that the crucifixion of 
Jesus Christ was an act of human creativity. Rollo May, in particular, 
says that if you're going to be authentic in your human creativity, 

222 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

you have to do battle with the gods. And the assumption of May 
and other modern minds is that God rejoices only when he can 
keep us stupid and therefore obedient. May quotes with relish from 
a letter written by George Bernard Shaw to Heifitz, the master 
violinist, after the Shaws had attended one of his superb violin 
concerts. It went something like this: 

My dear Mr. Heifitz, 

Mrs. Shaw and I were overwhelmed by the concert. If you 
continue to play with such perfection, you will certainly die 
young, for playing with such perfection will provoke the 
jealousy of the gods. We earnestly implore you to play some- 
thing very badly every night before you go to sleep . . . 

May stakes out that position, of course, by comparing the myth 
of Prometheus and the myth of Adam and Eve. Says Dr. May (and 
remember, he was a student of Tillich's), "Prometheus had to steal 
fire from Zeus; he had to steal it from the heaven, because Zeus 
wanted to deprive the human beings of civilization. And in the 
same way Adam and Eve had to raid the tree because this symbol- 
izes the dawn of human consciousness and or moral conscience." 
May would argue that had Adam and Eve not plundered that tree, 
they would not have been conscious and they would not have had 
any morality. 

Let's look at that comparison. First of all, Zeus and Prometheus 
were already out of sorts with one another. They had been carrying 
one quite a battle and contest. Adam and Eve were the crown of 
God's creation. Secondly, the people had already had fire, and Zeus 
took it away from them. When Prometheus stole into heaven to 
steal the fire, he was restoring or recovering for the people some- 
thing they had already enjoyed. But in the myth of Eden, Eden was 
that perfect place which from the beginning had the tree of the 
knowledge of good and evil from which man was not supposed to 
eat, but could eat freely of the tree of life. In the third comparison, 
Prometheus had to steal the fire, but Eve did not have to steal the 
apple. There was no fence around that tree; there was no barrier; 
there was no need for the cover of night. God was not monitoring 
the tree and did not know that any fruit was missing until he saw 
the actions of Adam and Eve after he could run them down. The 

On Explaining Ourselves to God 223 

tree had open access. And, finally, there is no Satan in the myth of 
Prometheus. But there is a Satan, a serpent, in Eden. The symbol is 
that the rape of the tree was prompted by the unrighteous one, 
which leaves May and others suggesting that the search for the 
knowledge of good and evil is prompted by the unrighteous one. 

I'd like to say two other things about Eden that are not drawn 
from the comparison. The people were told they might eat freely 
from every other tree of the garden except the tree of knowledge of 
good and evil, but this, as I have hinted, did not mean that there 
was a fence around the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The 
word freely here means "You may eat of every other tree without 
cost, at no sacrifice to yourself. It won't cost you a thing. You can 
have the tree of life for nothing, but if you eat of that tree of the 
knowledge of good and evil, it's going to cost you. You can't have 
that one freely." Now, much is made of the fact that God, because 
man had become like him — knowing good and evil — he must 
ban him from the tree of life. What man learned from eating of the 
tree of knowledge of good and evil was that there is good and evil; 
but man did not know good and evil like God — never has known 
good and evil like God. And because man knew the presence of 
morality, the existence of morality, because man knew that, unless 
he also knew the difference and could determine the difference, 
which he could not, he could not be allowed to live forever to 
perpetuate the misunderstanding of good and evil. 

How shall I explain you and me to God today? Shall we have as 
our priest Rollo May, who, in effect, says, "If you're going to be 
creative as human beings, you must disobey the gods, you must be 
in battle with the gods, indeed even if it means the death of God, 
that's what you have to do?" Or shall we let the victim of the 
crucifixion, the only one to give an explanation for it, who says of 
us, "They do not know what they are doing," also be our priest? For 
the most part of my ministry, I've always looked upon that saying 
as grace and nothing else — as Jesus trying to make some kind of 
lame excuse for the people before God in his graceful redemption 
and atonement for them — but now I think that he meant exactly 
what he said. For the first time, this becomes a descriptive state- 
ment, and Christ from the cross was saying about men and about 
you and me, "They really do not know what they are doing. They 

224 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

ate the fruit but it didn't work. They really think they are doing a 
good thing; they are preserving the faith of their fathers, they are 
stablizing and preserving the order of the Roman Empire; they 
really think they are doing a good thing, God. They don't know 
what they're doing." And so Christ, from that tree of Golgotha, 
talked about the tree in Eden and said it didn't work. And Christ 
kept faith with the idea throughout his whole life. 

There is another saying which has been so hard for me to under- 
stand, when on two occasions someone came to Christ and said, 
"Good Master" or asked, "What is good?" and Jesus said, "Why do 
you call me good?" or "Why do you ask me about what is good? No 
one is good save the Father, and no one knows good save the 
Father." He said over and over again, "My teaching is not mine but 
his who sent me." In effect, our Savior and Lord, the Son of God, 
was saying what we've been unwilling to say. That is, he was 
saying, "I never picked an apple from that tree and I don't intend to. 
I do not, even in my own special place with God — I do not in any 
way pretend to determine good and evil. That is up to the Father. 

I explain myself, therefore, to God in your presence in this way: I 
do not have any ultimate sense of what is good and evil. Oh, I know 
the difference between right and wrong sufficiently so to be half- 
way civilized. And I think that I am moral, with qualifications. But 
I cannot codify it into law; I cannot frame it into an epic. Ultimately, 
I depend upon God to make that decision for me. Are you going to 
let anybody else make an absolute for you? And around here do we 
not say while we think man may grasp knowledge, really the 
pursuit of it is the fun? God alone must be allowed absolutely to 
determine between good and evil. Therefore, I rejoice that the 
victim of the cross said for those people and for us and for all 
coming generations, "Father, they do not know what they are do- 
ing." That is my explanation, and he therefore is my savior; and if I 
have to make explanation for you, that is what I shall say. We, you 
and I, do not know, but Christ, who is victim of our ignorance, is the 
Savior of our lives. Amen. 


A rather important omission in this particular sermon con- 
cerns what did result symbolically as a consequence of eating 
from the forbidden tree. While Adam and Eve learned little or 

On Explaining Ourselves to God 225 

nothing about the distinction between good and evil and 
failed to gain power for making determinations between the 
two, they did acquire a measure of moral responsibility be- 
cause of their disobedient action. This acquirement of moral 
sensitivity and responsibility is signified by the fact that be- 
fore Adam and Eve ate of the tree, they were naked but not 
ashamed. Afterwards, their eyes were opened and they were 
ashamed. Realistic experience is herein being symbolized; 
modern man and woman in their attempt to determine the 
nature of good and evil simply wind up with greater moral 
responsibility but without a greater capacity for being righ- 


February 21, 1982 
Micah 6:3-8; Romans 5:1-11 

We have not appreciably changed our materials for the "road to 
hell." We are still paving it with good intentions. Whether we are 
the world's people or God's people, to live the good or Christian life 
to the tune of our good intentions is as disharmonious as the worst 
note that ever embarrassed a symphony. Does this mean that we are 
hypocrites? It does not, and flailing away at hypocrisy whenever 
honorable intentions are descriptive as our motives is hitting the 
wrong key. 

Paul's failure to live the Christian life, was not the consquence of 
his hypocrisy. As can be seen from Romans 7, the Tightness of his 
intent lay behind his confession "I do not understand my own 
actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." 
Most of us find Paul hard to understand in many cases, but we have 
little trouble perceiving his problem in this instance. We know the 
experience of being unable to do as well as we wish and of doing 
that which we hate, which we would avoid doing if it were within 
our capacity. 

Treating Paul or ourselves with some strong, even harsh, antidote 
for hypocrisy is not only unkind and unfair, it is also irrelevant and 
fruitless. The failure to understand one's actions, under such cir- 
cumstances, points to a lack of knowledge and wisdom. Although 
no one lives up to the best of one's knowledge, no one does the best 
that is possible, it is a mistake to assume that this is only source of 
our difficulty. Such a perversity of will is not to be discounted 
entirely but we need to recognize also that our deficiency is due not 
only to a perverse will but to a lack of knowledge. 


228 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Eden's delectable fruit turned sour because the man and the 
woman there were denied the knowledge they pursued. So anxious 
were they to be like God, that is, to have his determinative knowl- 
edge respecting the matter of knowing good and evil, that they 
disobeyed God, to the end that the considerable knowledge they 
had already been given was now forever impaired. Men and wom- 
en have ever since tried to regain the knowledge lost in Eden and 
thus have tried to know more than is possible. 

But there is another aspect of the problem which has not been 
understood nor treated with good effect. Let me suggest that Adam 
and Eve's failure was due also to a lack of character. Let me dare say 
that Paul suffered the same deficiency. And let me risk the observa- 
tion that our own failures stem as much from character deficiency 
as from anything else. 

Although the basic theme of this sermon has to do with lack of 
character and the need, therefore, for character formation, such an 
emphasis needs to be made with due consideration for how a lack 
of knowledge has thwarted our endeavors at living the Christian 
life. In other words, character formation should be studied in light 
of those failures due to a lack of knowledge. Although in some 
instances the failures of the world's people are identical to those of 
God's people, I leave you to draw the parallels and will confine my 
own remarks to those of us who belong to the family of God. 

Our lack of knowledge has caused us to believe that the Christian 
life may be assured by attaining virtue, a virtue belonging to the 
natural goodness of human nature which may be recovered and 
confirmed by conforming to certain duties and acts which are 
virtuous by nature. Roman Catholicism has been the chief agent of 
this view and has thought to augment the achievement of virtue by 
offering sure grace transmitted by sacraments. The primary effect 
has been one of making virtue synonymous with the receiving of 
the sacraments. Protestants are known by their refusal to believe 
that virtue is assured by sacramental action, because such a view 
fails to account for the reality of falleness and for the necessity of 
change in the life of the person. 

In distinction from this generally Catholic view, Protestants have 
endeavored to live the Christian life by what Stanley Hauerwas 
describes as a command-obedience principle, obeying law or doing 

Character 229 

the will of God. The command-obedience metaphor may be ap- 
plied to our attempt to do our moral duty by obeying religious laws 
or ethics. As Hauerwas points out, there is more to our moral 
situation than there is to our principles and rules: "So much of our 
significant moral experiences and life simply does not fall within 
the area marked off by clearly defined principles." Thus the at- 
tempt to obey ethical commands signifies a lack of knowledge by 
which to deal with life's larger ambiguities. "Situation ethics," as 
developed by Joseph Fletcher and others, was once thought to be a 
solution to the problem caused by the limitation of principles with 
regard to the complexity of life. But "situation ethics," with its 
insistence that "right and wrong depend on the situation" leaves 
the self at the mercy of each new event, that is the self becomes 
what the situation calls for; the question of what kind of person is 
brought to the situation and what kind of person, therefore, 
emerges from the yonder side of it is not entertained. 

Peforming the will of God, as the basis for living the good life, 
presents two difficulties near to being insurmountable. Our lack of 
knowledge makes it impossible for us to know God's will unless 
and until he reveals it to us. We have no capacity of our own for 
knowing God's will, and his will cannot be fitted into our moral 
and ethical presuppositions. And upon knowing his will, when it is 
so revealed, we are powerless before its demand unless he supplies 
the power. We know of no other source giving us power to do God's 
will outside of his gracious gift of that power. 

Because of their limitations, due as they are to our lack of knowl- 
edge, the formation of character cannot depend upon a recovery of 
natural goodness through sacramental transmission, cannot de- 
pend upon command-obedience response to moral obligation, and 
cannot depend upon knowing and doing the will of God. It would 
be too much to say that character has no association with virtue, 
moral duty, or the doing of God's will, but neither may character be 
too closely identified with these categories. 

Richard John Neuhaus has put as well as anyone I know the 
meaning of character and what it implies for the living our lives. 
"That we are new beings in Christ," Neuhaus observed, "is God's 
sheer gift; the construction of character is the actualization of that 
gift. It is the painstaking process of becoming who, in Christ, we 

230 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

already are." If we are sufficiently aware that this definition must 
not be taken to mean the achievement of virtue already latent 
within us or of realizing ourselves as the good persons we always 
have been, it is then a safe definition. Character has to do with 
becoming new persons rather than a faithful replica of what we 
have always been. As to what kind of life is thereby indicated, 
"Character implies the courage and grace to live the good life in a 
world where needs go largely unmet." 

If I may make use of the views of Hauerwas and Neuhaus as 
points of departure, while evaluating these and other notions from 
the vantage of the authority of scripture, I should like to describe 
the formation of character as a moral and ethical experience, which 
is never complete but is always open to new possibility, which is a 
matter of maintaining the integrity of the person as one endures 
life in the tragic dimension, and which is a matter of a person 
responding rightly to life's situations characteristically rather than 
by choosing and doing the right thing. The latter is a matter of 
primary significance. A person of character will do what is done 
characteristically rather than wait until a situation arises and then 
decide upon what is right and wrong. 

Let us hasten now to the words of Micah. His prophetic ministry 
had disturbed people. They wanted to know how they might ap- 
pease an angry God. And so they said, How about burnt offerings 
of yearling calves? How about thousands of rams? How about ten 
thousands of rivers of oil? Or even our first born children? For the 
most part we have interpreted these verses as reflecting the inade- 
quacy of ritual sacrifices as substitutes for moral duty. And there 
can be no question but that such interpretation is a reasonable one. 
But with respect to the formation of character, it is clear that Micah's 
parish wanted to enter into some contract with God which, if 
fulfilled, would get God off their backs. Far from being open to all 
possibilities, they wanted to close the matter as soon as they could 
and then go on about their business. 

Micah countered with the necessity for doing justice and loving 
kindness. To this extent the prophet appealed to moral duty. But 
when he added the necessity of walking humbly with God, he left 
the matter open ended, with every new possibility very much in 
the picture. In order to see how easily we slip back to seeking virtue 

Character 231 

by obedience to moral duty, think of what the words "walk humbly 
with God" usually means to us. Do we not, if taking these words 
seriously, determine that we ought to be humble, thus achieving 
the virtue of humility. We must not let the adverb obscure the need 
to walk with God, whether humbly or not, and to realize that in 
walking with God, neither knowing that we must do this or that, 
but must walk with him who does not always tell us what to do, we 
are remaining open to possibility. The emphasis here, with respect 
to Micah's prophecy, should not be upon doing justice, or loving 
kindness, or being humble, because in the formation of character 
the stress is not open whether or not an action is good or bad but 
upon what kind of person emerges from the actions that are taken. 

Do I dare to use John Updike's woman, in a Month of Sundays, as 
an illustration of character? She was quite willing to have a sexual 
affair, one of adultery, with the womanizing preacher of her church. 
But the preacher found that he was sexually impotent in this par- 
ticular relationship. His impotence, he was convinced, stemmed 
from the fact that the woman was a believer. And so the preacher 
tried with all his might to persuade the woman to recant her faith, 
to deny God and his love for her and the preacher, with the hope 
that her apostasy would cure his impotence. Although she re- 
mained a willing partner for the adulterous affair, she would not 
deny God. I risk the observation that the woman had character. I 
admit that more acceptable and less extreme examples might be 
forthcoming, but few which might offer a more graphic illustration 
of the difference between moral duty and character. Furthermore, it 
should be remembered that the possibilities of the afffair were not 
realized not because the woman did her moral duty but because she 
had character. The affair came to an end not because of her obedi- 
ence to moral principles but because of the kind of a person she 

Paul's splendid reference in Romans 5 undergirds the whole of 
our premise: character is a matter of retaining one's integrity, one's 
unity of being, for the duration of experiences, whether good or 
bad. He began by saying that as Christians we may, or ought to, or 
do rejoice in our hopes of sharing the glory of God. This allows us to 
rejoice in our sufferings, not because suffering is enjoyable, and not 
because — mark well — suffering produces character. In and of 

232 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

itself suffering has never produced character; the endurance pro- 
duced by suffering is what produces character in turn. And charac- 
ter produces the hope of sharing in the glory of God which Paul 
had mentioned in the first place. 

Hear it well! Character is hoping. As Christians we are under 
moral duty to do justice. We are under God's command to love God 
and neighbor. The same may be said for truth, goodness, perhaps 
even beauty. It is our duty to love truth, goodness and beauty. But 
there is no moral duty to hope; no ethical obligation is thereby 
entailed. Jesus often said he that endures to the end shall be saved 
because, perhaps, endurance brings the kind of hope that lasts until 
salvation has come in all fullness and with the glory of God. 

What is character? Some summers back I had gone with my hosts 
to Bear Island, off the coast near Swansboro, for a day of seeing the 
natural delights of the place and for some swimming in the surf. 
No sooner had we arrived when the wind began to assert itself , and 
the lifeguards closed the beach so that no swimming would be 
allowed. As we walked back to catch a ferry to the mainland, I 
noticed a fisherman — with every appearance of being a native — 
readying his gear in order to do some surf fishing. By this time, we 
were trying to keep from toppling sideways against the gale com- 
ing off the water. .So I said to him, "Sir, do you expect to do any 
casting and catch any fish against this wind?" "Hoping to," he 
replied, and then with a grin he said, "Fishing ain't much more 
than hoping anyhow." 

I wish I knew that man. Had I not been with others, chances are 
that I might have stayed around in order to get to know him. Oh, to 
be sure, I might have heard some choice profanity if and when his 
lines got snarled because of that capricious gale. But I wanted to 
know him because he struck me as having character, as one who 
knows life as well as he knew fishing — so much of it is hope. 

The old times in my Baptist upbringing had about as much to say 
about growing in grace as they did about grace. Becoming what in 
Christ we already are is consonant with the idea of growing in 
grace. And to grow in grace is to grow in the hope of it. It is to live 
through whatever might be with heart, head, and soul together for 
the duration. Growing in grace is becoming a person more than 
achieving moral victory. One has grown in grace when he or she 

Character 233 

emerges from moral and ethical failure still a person of hope, still 
waiting for the second coming, still walking with God without 
knowing where one may be going. 

In the final analysis, character is celebrating life in every condi- 
tion with characteristic hope. I do not dare call them by name, but 
most of you will recognize these beloved friends who were once 
members of this church. They lived long and faithfully and beauti- 
fully, but they outlived the age when pain was no more. His hear- 
ing was impaired, she was blind, and had broken both hips. They 
were not stingy, but very frugal, because when they left this life, 
they wanted to leave as much money as possible to Baptist work. 
For a while they took Meals on Wheels, but quit this service be- 
cause the food was not tasty enough to their liking. Some of their 
friends insisted that I should check on whether or not they were 
getting the right kind of diet, since they had no prepared meals. I 
went out one wintry afternoon about 1:00 p.m. to check on their 
nutritional habits. They had a roaring fire in the grate, and were 
just about to have lunch. I was invited to join them, so we settled 
down in the den before a repast of delicious peanuts, chocolate 
eclairs from their favorite bakery, and ice-cold Pepsi. This food had 
not destroyed them before they reached their octogenerial years; 
this is what they wanted to eat. It was a celebration of life in a 
manner which was characteristic of these two dear friends. So the 
three of us spent the next hour and a half building character! 

Experiences of Joy 

June 19, 1977 
Isaiah 56:1-8; I Peter 1:1-9 

I do not believe there is any joy in suffering per se. However, I 
know some people who make that appear to be the case. Through 
the worst throes of their distress, they maintain joy in such a way as 
to make one wonder if they do not enjoy suffering after all. Of 
course, this is not what is going on, it only seems to be that way. 

Whenever we encounter these rare souls, and there are too few of 
them, it is like finding a blooming flower in a heap of junk, hearing 
an encouraging word in a din of criticism, tasting a sweet streak in a 
fallen cake, or seeing the face of a beloved friend among a sea of 
strangers. Although such individuals are few in number, they 
count far more than their small aggregate might suggest. Except for 
the consultation and hope we may receive from God through pray- 
er, in our times of distress, these are the people who pull our eyes 
out of their downcast glance, and stiffen our backs, and jerk our 
shoulders out of the sagging curve, inspiring us to give life another 
stab, to look again to the dawn, and to keep on keeping on with our 
lives of faith. Even if we do not see them during the time of a given 
ordeal, the memory of their gallant stance in their suffering is 
enough to rescue us from self-pity and make us too ashamed to give 

I am not speaking of the stoics who plod through life without the 
slightest change of expression on their face or in their demeanor. I 
am not referring to people who have dulled their sense of caring to 
the extent that the blows of suffering have little effect. I am not 
thinking of people with a knack for rolling with the punches so as 
to dodge or absorb suffering's sledgehammer blows. And I could 


236 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

not be commending masochists, who perversely enjoy every mis- 
ery which blows up a storm around their lives. 

The people who seem to know the secret of joy, and of whom I 
speak, are Christians for whom life has much meaning, who are 
called upon to care about the plight of others to a profound degree, 
and who theologically understand pain and suffering to be associ- 
ated with the underside of life rather than its better one. 

Their secret, and I believe they have one, is that they maintain 
joy through suffering because, in quiet and inobtrusive ways, they 
have achieved joy long before suffering has made its way into their 
lives or notice. These roads to joy are indeed so commonplace as to 
escape one's attention unless one has paid every strict attention. 
This means that one does not start rummaging for joy, like a pack- 
age stored somewhere on the shelf, to be opened up only when 
suffering has become a reality It is not sedation in the medicine 
cabinet to be dosed down at the first twinge of pain. It is not a 
prescription of autosuggestion by which one persuades himself "I 
am suffering, but I must be joyful/' 

I am sure that the joy the people in question have has been there 
for a good while before the suffering has settled in. And this joy has 
been rich enough and powerful enough so that suffering has not 
been able to quench it, or eliminate it, or weaken it to the extent 
that it no longer exists in times of distress. 

Our question should be obvious by now: What do Christian 
people do in order to know joy in fair times or foul? 

Let me add this parenthesis. The answer may appear so simple as 
to tempt each one of us to take it frivolously rather than seriously. If 
you should have that temptation, perhaps you should ask yourself 
whether or not you have ever tried what is being suggested, before 
discounting it entirely. Furthermore, the formula is not really de- 
signed for chasing headlong in pursuit of joy. It is rather something, 
which if painfully practiced, seems to produce joy in a more subtle 
manner. It is with us before we know it. 

In the first place, Christians have testified time and again about 
the joy they have received as a result of worshipping God in a 
fellowship of faithful people. Christians are not the originators of 
this experience. The prophet Isaiah promised the eunuch and alien, 
if they did not profane the Sabbath, if they held to the convent, 

Experiences of Joy 237 

they would be joyful in the Lord's house of prayer. Their sacrifices 
would be acceptable in the sight of the Lord. 

Too many churches miss the fundamental note in this promise. 
They try to assure a happy and joyful time in worship, that is, make 
certain that the service is a happy one. So they contrive for a happy 
fellowship, peppy music, slick litanies — all designed to be a happy 
time in the house of the Lord. 

These endeavors miss the mark; they are a false start to joy. Or 
perhaps I should say that this is my personal view of the matter. I 
am able to receive joy from worship in your midst, when the 
service is dragging, the music is abominable, and the sermon — 
mostly and largely by my own doing — is a catastrophe. My joy is 
based on the fact that if I show up here at 11:00 a.m., on the Lord's 
day, some earnest souls will be in this place, worshipping God and 
accepting me, and with an ear to hear both my joy and my sorrow 
Not everyone will greet me gladly, some not at all, and others with 
complaints or criticisms, that I would as soon not hear. But no 
matter, there will be faith and prayer and listening out for the will 
of God. There will be praise, confession, thanksgiving, and inter- 
cession. So when I come I have put a large down payment on joy, 
and if I keep coming, I will be keeping up with my installments. 

I suggest again. Do not discount this unless you have faithfully 
tried it. 

Joy is also the consequence of faith and confident hope. I am 
theologically turned off — although I am less sure of myself than I 
used to be — by people who seem so certain that all things, good or 
bad, are the expressions of God's will. Even if I am not quite ready to 
say that this is the case in the most minute particulars, as they seem 
to say, I have seen people like this bury parents, spouses, and 
children, lose jobs and friends, watch their houses burn down, their 
children go awry, and life in general become skewed, hang onto joy 
without fail. 

The old guy actually laughed in my face. I was a guest preacher 
in Clayton, North Carolina, and went with the resident minister to 
the hospital to visit this old codger who had just been told he had 
terminal cancer. I expressed condolence and consolation, and told 
him that I thought life had played a cheap trick on him, and he 
smiled, even grinned, at me, reached in the drawer beside his bed 

238 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

and gave me a card that he had faithfully distributed during most 
of his life, as a kind of cheerful joke. It went like this: If life hands 
you a lemon, squeeze it and start a lemonade stand. 

Now mind you, he did not have those cards printed after going to 
the hospital; he had been scattering them all over eastern North 
Carolina for years. Now he was simply practicing what he had 
been preaching. 

"In this you rejoice," wrote the author of I Peter, "though now for 
a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the 
genuiness of your faith . . . may redound to praise and glory and 
honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 

One does not have such faith because of joy, but one has joy 
because of this kind of faith. Some of us, perhaps every one of us, in 
varying degrees and coming from different standpoints, can testify 
— come think of it — to the fact that we have been able to be 
certain, during our sufferings, that "Christ is Lord! God's will is 
good. I believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." We have 
captured a joy which will not let us go. One of the most joyful 
statements, however sombre it may seem, is: 

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away 

Blessed be the name of the Lord! 

In the third and final place, those who do witness, make procla- 
mation, declare the goodness of God, the redemption of Christ, and 
the coming of the kingdom, build a cornucopia of joy which cannot 
be exhausted. 

No matter your personal condition, or what goes wrong with 
family, or how low the bank balance, or how you dread tomorrow, if 
you declare the gospel to someone, make your witness of God's gift 
of salvation, preach repentance and mercy, you will know joy. 

I shall not forget her weeping in the hospital, weeping until she 
died, not because of her sickness, but because of her grief that other 
people could not afford a good hospital, a splendid core of skilled 
doctors, and all the good things she had. There she was, preaching a 
social gospel from her dying bed and scolding me and the rest of the 
world because too many people, because of ignorance, remoteness, 
or poverty, do not receive the best in medical care. 

I tried to get her to think of herself and she would not. I wanted 
her to think of herself, because I would be more comfortable that 

Experiences of Joy 239 

way, instead of her preaching to me. But she would not. And I 
believe she might even have taken some joy in seeing me squirm. 
But her great joy was in giving witness. It was a joy which no one 
could take away. 

Worship, faith, proclamation: these are the sources of joy un- 
bounded for those of us, who claim to follow Christ. Is it not too bad 
that we let these treasures pass us by when they are so available to 
each of us? 


September 12, 1982 
Daniel 3:13-18; I Timothy 1:12-17 

Although it seldom appears as a word in the scriptures, loyalty is 
one of the many faces of faith. Other words are trust, commitment, 
belief, venture, hope and justification. And these are the ones more 
readily to be seen these days in the gallery of Christianity. Loyalty 
seems to have been taken down from its usual place on the wall 
either because it is no longer appropriate as a picture of faith or 
because it is in need of repair and restoration. I opt for the second 
explanation. It remains an appropriate representation of faith but 
one which has been sadly neglected in these days of heightened 
individuals, of the phenomenon of "me-ism", to such a degree as to 
be in bad condition. Let me urge you to join with me in restoring 
loyalty to its rightful place in the gallery of our faith. 

Endeavoring to do so needs no other justification than the truth 
that God's engagement with his people, in a covenant faith, is 
chiefly characterized by steadfastness, endurance, or loyalty. In 
other words, the major elements that God brings to the covenant of 
faith are grace and loyalty. The divine fidelity is indispensable to 
the convenant, and it thereby is also true that the loyalty of God's 
people is indispensable to the keeping of the covenant. 

But in doing so, let us not cheapen loyalty — denying the right to 
make those kinds of critical judgments. We cannot be as loyal as 
God — indeed should not be. As has been suggested, individual 
and collective loyalty receive little or no priority on the contempo- 
rary lists of human values. We have been conditioned to be cautious 
in our allegiances. As a whole, the age is marked by calculative 
persons. We hesitate at marriage vows, at joining institutions, at 


242 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

patriotism, even at friendships where loyalty is required. Our ten- 
dency is to defer loyalty until it constitutes the least possible risk. It 
does not occur to us that loyalty is probably a prelude to commit- 
ment, and consequently we engage in tentative commitments as a 
means of deciding what persons or things are to be given our 
allegiance. But a commitment, even thought to be a tentative one, is 
actually not a commitment of any kind unless it is preceded by 
loyalty. Loyalty must occur before commitment if commitment is to 
mean anything at all. In the last analysis we do not make commit- 
ments and then decide to be loyal. It is a basic loyalty out of which 
commitments are made. 

Daniel's three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — 
these were their Babylonian names — from most every indication 
had decided to be loyal before King Nebuchadnezzar threatened to 
fry them in his fiery furnace. Theirs was not a spontaneous, on-the- 
spot allegiance. The calm and cool, matter-of-fact, nature of their 
reply of Nebuchadnezzar suggests that they had anticipated just 
such an eventuality in their lives. Their Jewish names, Hennaniah, 
Mishael, and Azariah, given here in the same sequence as their 
Babylonian titles, meant respectively "Yah wen has been gracious/ 7 
and "Yahweh has helped" and indicated their pious and faithful 
ancestry. "Who is like God is," — the possible interpretation 
of Mishael — is an imaginative blow against idolatry. 

However, the two most imaginative and telling assumptions 
about the story is they apparently answered in unison, and had 
probably already faced the question of what they should do if God 
gave them no sign that he would deliver them from the burning 
fiery furnace. Thus the three spoke as one — may we suppose they 
had even rehearsed their answer — and they were quite ready to 
deal with the possibility that God would not snatch them from the 

I would like to suggest that it was within this context and these 
implications that they responded to the king's threat with these 
words, "O Nebuchadnezzar we have no need to answer you this 
matter," meaning that they had already decided that their ultimate 
allegiance was not to the monarch. "If it be so, our God we serve is 
able to deliver us out of your hand, O king." (He can save us if he 
chooses) "but if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not 

Loyalty 243 

serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set 
up." Some translators, admitting to the difficulty of this verse in the 
original suggest a paraphrase: "If God is, he is able to deliver us, and 
he will." In this case, the if not could even refer to the possibility 
that the god whom they served did not even exist. Consider this 
alternative, "but if not" was said not only to the possibility that God 
would not elect to save the three but perhaps that he would not be 
able to. Therefore, loyalty was pledged to God, who might turn his 
back upon their distress or might be limited in power so as to be 
unable to save them. Here we have loyalty to a less than omnipo- 
tent god, loyalty to a limited god, loyalty which is indeed a risk, 
daring allegiance not only to a god who will not but possibly one 
who cannot. 

Such loyalty is seldom developed in the instant or instance; it 
demands some planning and cultivation before the events calling 
for fidelity come to pass. 

In speculating upon those traits which lend themselves to loyal- 
ty, I risk the observation that if you show me the person who 
refuses every possibility of prejudice, I will show you one who is 
loyal to nothing. Many of our loyalties are built primarily upon 
prejudice but I do not think the world is any worse for all that. 
Shadrach and company did not know all there was to know about 
Yahweh. We find ourselves being loyal to persons before their 
worth or merit. Some loyalties are the consequence of our birth, 
that is, to whom we were born and where. Out of this experience, 
loyalty to family, to childhood friends and school playmates, and to 
nation occurs without thought, or judgment, or appraisal. This is 
my family, these are my friends, this is my nation; it is that simple, 
and loyalty is implicit in all such experiences. 

A logical assumption would be that when one achives the capac- 
ity to see parents, childhood friends, and one's nation with greater 
honesty and realism, loyalty would be based upon an honest as- 
sessment of their deserving of one's allegiance. But if loyalty is 
determined only by this kind of objective realism, and if loyalty is 
withdrawn from family, friends, or nation because it is not de- 
served by any or all of these, then family, friendships, and nation 
are not likely to endure. 

Other loyalties are less prejudiced but not to the degree we might 

244 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

suppose. We get married for better or for worse, thus the fidelity 
and the allegiance is not to be withdrawn when one's spouse ap- 
pears at his or her worst. The choice of friends, at one's maturity, 
should be more judicious than those back in our childhood neigh- 
borhood, but once friends are chosen we ought to be prejudiced in 
their favor. The same may be said for school and for church. Even if 
Wake Forest was your second, third, or even fourth choice, now that 
you are here, the university should enjoy your prejudice in its 
behalf. One not need insist that it is the best university in the 
country in order to be loyal to it. One must be loyal because of the 
choice that has been made. The same may be said for churches. 
Fortunately, no church has to be one's second choice, except for the 
fact that spouse or family or the place of one's residence may have 
some effect upon the church we choose. But once we have chosen, 
our loyalty to it should not be entirely dependent upon its deserv- 
ing. If you are hearing me correctly, you are hearing the strong and 
uneqivocal suggestion that loyalty depends greatly upon grace, not 
only at the beginning but throughout the enterprise of faithfulness. 

In the second place, in order to be loyal one must look with 
prejudiced eye upon that to which allegiance has been given. This 
is to say that one must develop a means of seeing that which is 
loved always at its best. I have never dealt with a troubled marriage 
unless one or the other of its partners had not developed a highly 
critical eye which is capable of detecting the slightest flaw in the 
spouse. Doing marriage counseling, I am soon able to detect the 
chances of restoration of that marriage on the basis of whether or 
not a person is quick to agree, even to exploit, some criticism I 
might raise, rather than coming quickly to his or her defense. 

A bit later on, I will speak to the need of accepting or forgiving 
the faults of other persons or things to which we are loyal in order 
to remain so. But I do not hesitate to suggest that loyalty has a 
delightful myopia to such flaws, making them harder to see than 
they might be under other circumstances. 

The point is that if we are able, without much effort, to see the 
fault of the person or thing to which we have given allegiance, our 
allegiance and loyalty are already worthy or suspicion. Love and 
loyalty are blind. Having at one time coached football, I cannot see 
a Wake Forest team with exactly the kind of blind loyalty that 

Loyalty 245 

others do, unable as they are to detect its weaknesses and flaws. It 
matters not to them what the season may bring, they simply add 
up losses to chance and cheer for their team regardless of its imper- 

And this leads to the fact that loyalty also demands forgiveness. 
At the present time, our football team is one and one or two and 
nothing, as the case may be. Those who are blind to the possibilities 
of future losses can live with their myopic enthusiasm, those who 
know the probabilities of a losing season must be ready to forgive 
in order to be loyal. This is not at all easy. When we have been loyal 
by virtue of being blind to flaws and then are forced to acknowl- 
edge them because they are so apparent, it is harder to be loyal 
because we feel that we have been betrayed, made fools of, when 
what needs remembering is that the flaws were there all the while; 
we simply refused to see them. Now that we are made to see them, 
loyalty depends more upon forgiveness than upon myopia. 

Even so, and in matters more important than athletic games, 
one's loyalty to marriage, family, friends, nation, school, church 
rests often upon pardon and forgiveness. It means visiting the 
friend in prison, staying with the marriage when it is more burden 
than joy, sticking with the nation in its terrible times of adjustment, 
staying with the church when it fails at its mission, even going 
with Christ to his cross when this represents the last thing we 
expect or want. 

Finally, loyalty is a matter of integrity. The very integrity that 
removes us from covenants when they are no longer bearable — are 
mutually destructive, thus meaning that to stay with them is the 
wrong thing; this integrity is also that which makes for loyalty. 
Loyalty depends upon the word we give, the covenant deed we 
perform, the character we exhibit in all of our relationships. There 
are times when a friendship must be discontinued, when a mar- 
riage must be dissolved, when parents and or children must go 
their separate ways, when nation, school, and church must be 
forsaken. But never without pain and turmoil. For example, I have 
been here long enough to see a goodly number of people leave this 
church. Some of them did so with great pain and sorrow, and I did 
not enjoy talking with them while they were making their deci- 
sion. But I respect them, could wish them well, and knew that the 

246 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

church to which they were now going would benefit from their 
allegiance. They had joined this church in good conscience, were 
leaving it because of conscience, and would join another with the 
same kind of fidelity 

Others have simply walked away leaving the institution, its 
preacher, their fellow Christians and friends without the slightest 
evidence of care and concern. I have watched them too with sad- 
ness, a sadness even for the church to which they now intended to 
go. Because I was rather sure that they were making a covenant no 
more profound then the one which they had broken so easily and 
without flinching. 

I suggested at the outset of the sermon that God and Christ 
treated the covenant of faith as a matter of loyalty, of steadfast 
endurance. God and Christ do not need to believe in us for their 
salvation. They do not need us to accomplish their mission. Their 
faith is not the dependent faith like unto ours. But their loyalty is 
indispensable to our faith. So they were steadfast and they chose us 
as their people not for the moment but forever. 

The writer of I Timothy, probably written under Paul's name by 
another, but certainly a person who captured the mind and heart of 
Paul, has spoken to this kind of loyalty on Christ's part. Paul was 
judged to be faithful in that he was appointed to the service of 
Christ. Although he had formerly blasphemed, had persecuted the 
Christians, had insulted Christ, Christ had judged him to be faith- 
ful. Even at present he was to be considered as the foremost of 
sinners, but he received mercy so that Christ might display perfect 
patience. Christ had not only forgiven Paul for his former persecu- 
tion, but even as he remained foremost among sinners, Christ was 
patient and therefore loyal, patient, enduring, steadfast, always 
giving to Paul the benefit of the bargain. And the writer implied 
that if Christ could do so with Paul, he could do so with anyone. 
The patience of Christ with Paul was an example to all who might 
believe in the Savior unto eternal life. 

Then it was that Paul responded with a doxology, a doxology of 
loyal lasting and patient praise: To the king of ages, immortal, 
invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever, and ever. 

The Sins of Missing Church 

March 28, 1982 
Luke 4:14-30; I Corinthians 12:12-26 

The occasion for this sermon is threefold. First of all, I heard 
myself telling a student a short while back that missing church 
might be a greater sin than telling a lie, and I have discovered upon 
reflection that I was more serious in that statement than I thought 
at the time I made it. In the second place, the mild flap between 
some Chapel Hill preachers and the Columbia Broadcasting Com- 
pany, over the TV scheduling for last Sunday's NCAA quarterfi- 
nals, has served to keep the Sunday question in focus. Finally, and 
most importantly, this is the Easter season, the great season of the 
church. For the church came to be in the wake of the resurrection 
and ascension of Jesus Christ and, although it does not take the 
place of Christ, it has been permitted by scripture and tradition to 
think of itself as the body of Christ in the interval between his 
ascension and his return at the Parousia. 

As to lying and missing church, I am certainly not of a mind to 
suggest that lying is a small matter but rather that missing church is 
a bigger matter than we often suppose. Even as I was preparing this 
sermon, the big lie down in Raleigh took shape; it offers opportuni- 
ty for debate on either side. How can the state maintain its integrity 
if it lies to prisoners who have gotten some of their demands by 
taking hostages and threatening their lives? That this question will 
and should be argued, being worthy of much conjecture, shows 
how seriously we take the question of truth and falsehood. Our 
society is sewn together with the threads of integrity and would 
quickly unravel should those fibers prove to be the stuff of false- 


248 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

Granting such premise to be of merit, my suggestion that miss- 
ing church may be a greater sin than telling a lie is based in part on 
the fact that the scriptures give instances of lying, without explana- 
tion or excuse, which seems to be for the sake of the truth with 
which the church has been burdened throughout its life and mis- 
sion. I am saying in effect that the Bible records, may even com- 
mend, neglecting to tell the truth for the sake of the ultimate truth. 

For example, there lies a tale behind the Ten Commandments to 
have been received by Moses and told to the people. Shiphrah and 
Puah were Hebrew midwives ordered by a fearful Pharoah, be- 
cause of the high birthrate among the Jews — eventually a threat to 
his throne — to kill all the male children in whose delivery they 
assisted. They failed to carry out those orders, and when the Phar- 
oah asked them for a reason, they replied, "Because the Hebrew 
women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and 
are delivered before the midwife comes to them/' That was a lie 
which may have saved the life of Moses. 

Then too, a lie had something to do with the Jews making it into 
the Promised Land where God was to set them apart as a people for 
his purpose through the ages. Once again, it was a woman who told 
the lie, which probably means that women are more perceptive 
than men, in general, when it comes to recognizing the essentials of 
a given issue. In any event, Rahab the harlot hid the spies that 
Joshua had sent into the Promised Land on her roof and under 
stalks of flax. When the soldiers believed her story, that the spies 
had already come and gone, and took off in hot pursuit of their trail, 
she sneaked them back to the safety of Joshua and the Jews. Again 
she seems to have told a lie for the sake of the truth which was still 
to be told. 

Jesus seems to have adopted some such principle, as told in John 
?, when he told his brothers that he was not going to attend a feast 
of tabernacles since the time had not yet come for him to suffer and 
die on the cross for the gospel truth and its mission, but when his 
brothers were out of sight, Jesus went in secret to the feast. 

Since it is our justifiable assumption that the church has been 
burdened with the gospel, therefore the truth, we may be able to 
say that missing church, that is, failing to support the body which 
holds that truth, is not only a greater sin than telling a lie, but that 

The Sins of Missing Church 249 

its truth is of such moment for the world that lying may be justified 
for the sake of the church and its truth. 

As to the sin of missing church one of the most common may be 
explained by Luke's account of Jesus' first visit to his native Naza- 
reth after his baptism and commissioning for his ministry to the 
world. He did not go to the synagogue to teach or preach on that 
Sabbath day which got him into so much trouble because of his 
interpretation of the words of the prophet Isaiah. He went to the 
synagogue because that was his custom. It is true that most of the 
time that he went to the synagogue, he wound up teaching and 
preaching. But Luke tells us what must have been the bottom line, 
namely, that he would have gone to the synagogue whether or not 
he was ever asked to teach; he would have gone because that was 
his custom. In other words, Jesus made a habit of going to syna- 
gogue just as in our time he would have made a habit of going to 
church. Because he went customarily, he went characteristically; to 
go to worship was a part of the character of the Son of God. 

What is done as a matter of habit, customarily and characteristi- 
cally, is done without thinking. Jesus did not think about whether 
or not he would go to the synagogue on the Sabbath; he went as a 
matter of habit. 

We should go to church as a matter of habit, as a facet of our 
character, that which we do customarily and characteristically. And 
if we do not go, we commit the sin of breaking a habit, of breaking 
with our character, of living contrarily to the persons we are or 
profess to be. Of course, I am speaking only to those of us who are 
members of a church. People who do not belong to a church have 
no reason to make a habit of attending church. People who do 
belong to church should go without thinking about it. If any think- 
ing about it is to take place, one should have to think about missing 
church or not attending church. One should have to come up with 
reasons for not going to church, which is to suggest a second sin for 
missing church. 

Apart from providential causes and sickness, there are no good 
reasons for Christians to miss church. A basketball game is not a 
good reason for missing church. Even a championship game, 
whether it be North Carolina or Wake Forest is not a good reason for 
missing church. I do not think the Chapel Hill preachers were 

250 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

talking to the right parties when protesting the TV schedule of last 
Sunday. CBS owes nothing to the church. And thus the church 
owes nothing to CBS except to make certain that the gospel is 
proclaimed through the world to everyone. Most significantly, CBS 
did not dare because it did not have to dare. What must always be 
said therefore, not to CBS, but to Christians is that a basketball 
game is not a good reason for missing church. I do not consider this 
to be a rigid posture. I was quite willing to postpone last Sunday's 
church conference to this Sunday. I watched the game and enjoyed 
it thoroughly, but I repeat that a basketball game is not a good 
excuse for missing church. 

Some people miss church because of wanting to break the habit 
of going, which has been mentioned, since that means going with- 
out thinking. But much that we do without thinking is part of the 
formation of character. If going to church is a good habit, then there 
is no reason to break that habit because we assume that we will 
then think more about church and it will have more meaning to us. 
I am willing to say that breaking the habit of church-going in order 
for it to be more meaningful is not a good reason for missing 
church. In this case the habit is better than the thought. 

Needed to rest because of a hard week? The Lord's day is not a 
day of rest, not the day respite from creation, but the day of resur- 
rection, thus a day of celebration . Had company? Company should 
be introduced to what one celebrates most in life. 

Think, if you will, of the last excuse you used for missing church 
and ask if it was an excuse to be proud of, an excuse that you would 
find acceptable for missing other things. The point to be made here 
is that missing the central celebration of one's life defies most 
excuses. The more important the matter the more inane the reason. 
The foolish maidens missed the wedding party because they did 
not have enough oil for the lamps. The builder sat on the founda- 
tion of the house, defeated because of not counting the cost. The 
people variously missed the wedding feast because of being mar- 
ried, trying out a new team of oxen, or surveying some land newly 

The sin of excuses is not so much a matter of doing something 
evil but of missing something essential. Am I speaking of great 
preaching that is missed? Of course not! It is not easy and never 

The Sins of Missing Church 251 

comfortable for preachers to urge people to attend church know- 
ing, as the preachers do, that it is an invitation to hear them preach. 
Or at least, that it may be so interpreted. The preacher must remem- 
ber that the importance of what one does is the telling of the gospel. 
It is admittedly easier to hear the gospel told well than told without 
insight or imagination, but I am willing to wager this one thing, 
most preachers deliver sermons far better than the excuses which 
people offer for not hearing them. 

Perhaps the greatest sin of missing church is that it thereby 
cripples the church. "The body does not consist of one member but 
many." No member of the body can say to another I have no need of 
you. The eye cannot say this to the hand, nor the hand to the eye. 
Nor does any member of the body say, because I am not some other 
member of the body but am only what I am, I am not part of the 

Paul made it clear that no member was so important to the body 
that it could say to what it deems less important, the body has no 
need of you, I have no need of you. And he made it clear that no 
member of the body is so unimportant as to say to the body, I do not 

When you miss church you make lame and partial the body of 
Christ. That is precisely what occurs. Now, let us be as honest as is 
possible. Unlike the physical body, the church can grow another 
hand or foot, develop another eye or ear, replace even the more 
unpresentable parts of the body which are all the more indispens- 
able, if and when these members of the body die or take their leave 
for some other reason. But the church cannot replace any member 
of the body so long as that member belongs to the church. In its 
better wisdom and because it is a body of mercy and grace the 
church has refused through the years to practice surgery on its 
members. In other words, few churches there are which excom- 
municate or drop from its rolls the worse members of its body. It 
limps along, plods along, struggles along with whatever members 
it has. 

Each year in this church, our members go to one another asking 
for pledges and support. They go to some knowing that they will 
be scolded for having done so. There are some people who say, 
"What right do you have to come and ask me for money, I have not 

252 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

been to church for ten years/' The answer is, you are hand, or foot, 
or eye, or ear; we cannot say to you we have no need of you, and 
you cannot say to us that you are not a part of the body. So long as 
any of you, or those not here, are members of the body, then the 
body is energized by some of you and must carry others as dead 
weight, but that is what it does. The Church chooses to be a cripple 
because it is a body of grace. 

One of our younger people, studying in our disciples class for 
possible church membership, was asked with the others to think of 
what part of the body she saw herself to be. Upon a moment's 
reflection she answered, "I am a wrinkle." Although a bit young to 
have grown wrinkles, if and when she does and is still around this 
church, you may be sure that the church will not bring out its Oil of 
Olay, (I am glad you cannot see the spelling, I have not learned how 
to spell olay), it will not try to smooth out its wrinkles. One of the 
beautiful characteristics of the church is that it does have its wrin- 
kles, the wrinkles of experience, of stored wisdom, of the long 
trials, of being beaten by the elements of life in the world; she is 
indeed a wrinkled body and has been around for a long time. But as 
we all know, wrinkles are often the conduits of kindness and grace. 
The church could not do without its wrinkles. 

A Gospel of Grace and 

February 10, 1980 
Mark 1:9-15; Romans 5:1-11 

The Church owes everyone — saint and sinner alike — faithful 
proclamation of an honest gospel. The same is true for any church, 
but since this is the one for which we are mostly responsible, let us 
talk of the matter as it concerns us. We must rededicate ourselves to 
preaching an honest gospel, and so much so as to resolve that, if and 
when the gospel is mishandled to the extent of being robbed of its 
integrity, our patience will grow to be as thin and brittle as a 
Moravian cookie. 

A gospel becomes dishonest when its basic elements are obs- 
cured, set aside, or replaced in order to win adherents to whatever 
surrogate gospel is presented in the place of the honest one. For the 
purpose of establishing some criterion of measuring its integrity, it 
may be asserted that if a gospel is to be honest, it must contain the 
factors of judgement and grace. To the degree that these essentials 
are present, the gospel will likely be an honest one. 

The 14th and 15th verses of Mark's testament read like this: 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, 

preaching the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, 

and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the 


Let there be no mistaking the matter; the gospel has to do with 

the kingdom of God, and all people are judged in the light of their 

loyalty to such a kingdom. Here is one of the first instances in 

which the gospel is misrepresented, mostly by those who revel in 

relevance. It is not for us to decide whether the gospel is relevant or 


254 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

not, but we may be sure that if we strain to make it relevant, we are 
liable to sift out some of its essential ingredients, leaving only an 
insipid taste in the place of the fine wine of its truth. 

But there are those who persist in diluting the gospel because the 
kingdom of God is deemed to be irrelevant to the needs of modern 
men and women. Given a world situation in which the kingdoms 
of East and West are struggling for dominance or survival — it is 
hard to tell one from the other — allegiance to the kingdom of God 
seems far removed from what is pertinent to the times. Many of us 
agree that we need to straighten out the kingdoms of earth before 
we bother with the kingdom of heaven. 

It is also averred that the kingdom of God idea is a hard one to 
communicate. Thus it is that McLuhan's madness, about the medi- 
um being the message, has convinced us that we must "become all 
things to all men so that by all means we might communicate to 
some." And we are confirmed in this effort when others say to us 
that they have had no experience with God's kingdom, do not 
know what it is about, or where we are coming from when we talk 
about it. Since we must by all means communicate, it then becomes 
necessary to sell our kingdom birthright for a mess of media or a 
cup of communication. As a result, we have forgotten the truth that 
without the kingdom of God there is no gospel to be proclaimed, 
and that any gospel preached to the contrary is nothing more than 
the relevant rehearsal of doggerel drama. 

The proclamation of an honest gospel is also complicated by its 
stubborn bias that the initial effect of the good news should be one 
of repentance. This also is met frequently with ears that do not hear. 
How many times have we heard, in recent years, that repentance of 
sin has no place in a modern vocabulary The present view of 
religion, of any kind, is that it should be a tool for problem-solving. 
The matter of becoming a new person, as a result of the saving act of 
Christ, is of little moment to an individual who wishes to remain 
the same person he is but is amenable to receiving a little bit of help 
along the way. Years ago, Rabbi Liebmann put many of our minds 
at rest when he intimated in his Peace of Mind that one did not have 
to repent of his sins if he would find a way of outgrowing them. 
Thereby religion was cast as a remedy much like one which over- 
comes a baby's colic by means of maturation. 

A Gospel of Grace and judgment 255 

Mark preached to the contrary when interpreting what Jesus 
came to Galilee to preach. The sermon is that repentance is the very 
first step in the process of believing the good news. "Repent and 
believe in the gospel" is what it says, and there is the clear intima- 
tion that repenting is necessary to believing. The paradox keeps 
punching us to get our attention; if the good news is to be heard, it 
asserts, it will be heard by one who repents. Paul picked at the 
Romans with the prongs of this paradox. "Do you," he asked, 
"presume upon the riches of his kindness and forebearance and 
patience? Do you know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to 

I know no one — do you? — absolutely no one believing now in 
the gospel who did not repent when he first heard it. 

So far, I have described the gospel in a tough-minded way, one 
stubbornly connected with God's kingdom and unyielding in its 
demand for repentance. But like the shepherds, who shook with 
fear when first they heard the good news, we also are not so much 
surprised by the awful power of the holy — that is to be expected — 
as we are surprised by the love of the Holy One. Judgment calls for 
repentance, the repentance is the ground of belief, and belief in the 
gospel is to be overwhelmed by the merciful love of God. 
Paul is matchless in his understanding thereto: 

While we were yet helpless, at the right time, Christ died for 
the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man — 
though perhaps for a good man one will even dare to die. But 
God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners 
Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his 
blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of 
God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God 
by the death of his son, much more, now that we are recon- 
ciled, shall we be saved by his life. 
Paul let out all the stops in describing a condition of one less 
likely to be saved. Look at his score: helpless, ungodly, sinful, and 
enemies of God. No chance for any one in that shape, is there? The 
phrase that may spark our possible understanding is "at the right 
time." Our Job-like egos convince us, as it did the patriarch, that the 
right time is when, face to face with God, we shall be able to argue 
the Tightness of our ways before him. How did Job put it? "This will 

256 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

be my salvation, that a godless man shall not come before him/' Or, 
if we are made of gentler stuff, we can see ourselves as the sheep, 
given the kingdom of God on the last day, because we have done 
our quota of kind deeds. That will be the right time, let Christ die 
for us then, when we are somewhat worthy, at least, of his sacrifice. 

But no, this is not the right time for God or Christ. The right time 
is while we were yet helpless, ungodly, sinful and hostile to the 
holy — that was the right time for him to die, and in him for God to 
reconcile the world unto himself. So it is that just about the time 
that we are made willing to think in terms of God's kingdom, to 
accept its judgment, to repent and thus believe — just about that 
time, we find that grace is the foundation supporting the whole 
business of our salvation. We find that it is there even if we do not 
feel judged, do not repent, are not prepared to believe, and there it 
reconciles us and brings us to salvation. 

This is too hard to take. And we are heard to say, "Surely we have 
to do something. This puts all the burden on Christ and it makes us 
ashamed. Give us something to do. Let us be judged and satisfy the 
court of the holy. Let us repent, let us believe. Let us get baptized 
anew by the Holy Spirit. And beneath our protestations there is 
surely the desire that we shall be able to do something so that we 
may take some credit for our salvation and feel better about the 
transaction. But if the gospel is honest, our credits will not be 
tallied; we will be forced to quit thinking of ourselves, and of our 
deeds whether good or bad, and as to whether or not we are 
ashamed, for we will have no room for any other than to be grateful 
for the grace by which we are saved. 

Let us look at some of the ways in which some of us might and 
could respond to an honest gospel. 

Wake Forest University students are a good place to begin. This is 
not to say that the rest of us, faculty, administration, townspeople, 
preachers, or whatever, are faultless, but let us take the risk of 
confronting students, a practice less popular than that of courting 
them for religious purposes. 

I am afraid that the gospel of individual happiness and realiza- 
tion has been preached to students here and that it is this gospel to 
which they respond rather than to that of the kingdom of God. 
Now the kingdom of God is a great mystery in the gospel. It is here 

A Gosyel of Grace and Judgment 257 

but yet to come. It must be lived here and yet in the life beyond. 
One must be born from above in order to see and enter it. At the last 
day the question of kind deeds as a ministry to Jesus will be asked. 
Even when one is brought to the kingdom by grace, inappropriate 
garments for kingdom wear may cause the person to be thrown out 
into the streets. 

These are not easy matters with which to deal. And yet I am 
impressed with how many students are able to disengage them- 
selves from so great a mystery turn to the measure of their individ- 
ual feelings, accept an inerrant Bible and the baptism of the Spirit, 
and believe that they have finished their course. Despite the fact 
that an array of capable professors still confess to having much to 
learn about the mystery of the Christian faith, many students have 
not in any way repented of their religious ignorance respecting 
faith. And it is of no small matter that the religious students are 
sometimes more ignorant of Christianity than are the nonreligious 
ones. Unless and until there is repentance for the oversimplifica- 
tion of the gospel, students are not likely to believe in the gospel 
because they will have no idea as to what it is. 

But let me say that even in their misrepresentations of the gospel, 
they will be saved at the right time by God's grace. 

Or to speak of another category: when the oppressed hear the 
good news, they have reason to believe that their station in this life 
will be improved. And their oppressors, if hearing the gospel, will 
certainly feel judged and, let us trust, will repent of their exploita- 
tion of the weak. But this is not the whole of the story. For, if the 
gospel is truly heard, the oppressed, in reaching a better station in 
life, will be judged if they assume that their social and economic 
good fortune is a sign that the kingdom of God has arrived. God is 
not more black than he is white, no poorer than rich, and no more a 
Democrat than a Republican — despite some arguments I am sure 
to hear to the contrary. 

Unless the gospel is heard so that the oppressors are willing to 
give away some of their advantages in this life and so that the 
oppressed will not be satisfied with those advantages in the place of 
life in the kingdom of God, the gospel will be heard to no avail. If 
the poor would rather be rich than saved, would rather have bread 
than the bread of life, the gospel has not been heard. But the 

258 The Glad Irony of the Gospel 

moment the rich preach such a gospel to the poor, they have 
distorted its truth. The needle is still too small for the camel. 

And in the end there must be the understanding of grace. For 
whether rich or poor, black or white, at the right time, all are 
reconciled to God by the death of Christ and are being saved by his 
life. If you are bothered by the paradoxes herein, the gospel is 
intended to keep you and me off balance, so that we realize that we 
are saved by grace.